How to Be a Participative Leader

woman leading a meeting

Being a leader of an organization can be an enriching experience. You have the potential to positively influence the teams you collaborate with to achieve mutual success. But there are several ways to approach being an effective leader.

Many entrepreneurs and managers feel that the traditional firm hand is the epitome of business leadership. There’s a sense that this authoritarian style of leadership is synonymous with strength. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. There are leadership approaches that are more collaborative in nature. These tend to elicit a greater sense of voluntary and meaningful engagement with the workforce, which can boost productivity, improve retention, and drive innovation.

We’re going to take a closer look at how to be a participative leader. What are the key components of this leadership style and how can you best cultivate it?

What is Participative Leadership?

Participative leadership is a style that is defined by a commitment to all colleagues being involved with key decision making. It’s a more democratic approach to the process than authoritative or delegative leadership, in which a single figurehead is driving all elements of the operation. While participative leadership keeps mutual consent in decisions at its core, this doesn’t make the role of the leader obsolete. A participative leader facilitates the collaborative processes, provides guidance in the resolution of conflicts, and keeps their team on track toward efficient outcomes.

That said, a single approach to participative leadership is not suitable for all situations. As such, there are 4 key types of participative leadership. It’s important to know which to utilize for each team or project. These types are: 

Autocratic

There will be some situations in which it is essential that you take ultimate control and authority as a leader of a project. This can be appropriate if a project deals with sensitive information or a sizable investment. In these circumstances, employees are still encouraged to provide significant input and offer their ideas or preferences for routes to follow. However, the leader has ultimate decision-making power and is not required to give any reasoning for their choices.

Democratic

This is a similar approach to autocratic participative leadership, in that the leader exerts significant control of the project. The members of the project tend to vote democratically on decisions, but the leader has the power to veto or choose another route. However, this style still aims to have a certain amount of transparency and accountability toward the team. There is an onus on the leader to explain why they have made contrary choices.

Consensus

Consensus participative leadership is perhaps the most democratic of all the styles. In this approach, the leader doesn’t have any ruling or veto power above any other member of the group. Rather, they simply facilitate the processes and guide the group toward making a unanimously agreed upon decision. This includes rehashing and reviewing ideas so that everybody can be in agreement before moving forward. This approach tends to be more suitable for lower stakes projects or those for which there isn’t a tight deadline approaching.  

Collective

Collective participative leadership involves everybody from all areas of the organization being involved in making decisions. The leader facilitates contributions from workers of all levels of seniority, regardless of their department or area of expertise. It’s also a style in which ultimate responsibility for the outcome is not placed on the leader but each member of the organization as a collective. Therefore, it is often most suitable for projects surrounding changes in company culture, policy, or overall direction.

What Are the Key Characteristics of a Participative Leader?

Regardless of the type of participative leadership you use in different circumstances, there are characteristics that you need to possess in order to act effectively. These are usually traits that are geared toward being an efficient facilitator. Indeed, with so many close interpersonal interactions, many of the key aspects here are soft skills that smooth the path to effective collaborations.

Thes key characteristics of a participative leader include:

Empathy

When you’re empowering groups to make decisions, there will be periods of disagreement, struggle, and high-emotion. As a leader, you need to be able to stay mindful about how each member of the team might experience the process and the hurdles they may be facing. A strong sense of empathy is vital to guide workers through overcoming their difficulties and working together.

Critical Thinking

One of the benefits of participative leadership is you can gain several great ideas from staff in the course of the project. However, the challenge then is to facilitate your team in determining which of these is the most appropriate for the project. The staff members providing these ideas will have emotional attachments to their concepts. Therefore, it falls to you as the leader to facilitate effective critical thinking practices to influence the best outcomes.

Self-Confidence

Many leaders find it difficult to switch to participative leadership because they mistakenly see it as a threat to their authority. As such, one of the essential characteristics of participative leaders is self-confidence. You have to be secure enough in your perception of your position to give over a portion of your power for the potential benefits that can come from group decision-making.

Openness

There are various ways in which openness is a key characteristic in a participative leader. Firstly, it’s the necessity to remain open to equally exploring team members’ ideas, even if they seem unusual or counterproductive. You also have to be open to accepting group decisions, even when they don’t match up with your own preferences. It’s also worth considering that you have to be open to both expressing and receiving criticism, as hesitancy here can waste valuable time.

What Habits Should You Cultivate?

Alongside developing the characteristics of a participative leader, it’s also important to cultivate certain habits. These can both help you build your personal efficacy with the approach while also easing your staff members into the idea of being more engaged in project or company decision-making. 

These habits include:

Reaching Out to Staff

Particularly if you’ve previously utilized a more authoritarian approach, one of the most difficult hurdles is getting into the habit of seeking staff insights. Nevertheless, you need to get used to doing this if you and they are going to utilize the style effectively. It can be helpful to build outreach into various areas of your company’s activities. Encourage managers of individual departments to involve their teams in providing opinions on making key decisions. Implement regular anonymous surveys to encourage staff to be open about their experience with your company. You can also include questions here about how valued they feel their opinions are, so you can measure the effect participative leadership has on company culture as you start to introduce it.

Demonstrating Trust

It takes a significant amount of trust in your team to utilize participative leadership. Indeed, your team also needs to be able to trust you to treat their input in an honest and supportive way. As such, it’s important to develop a habit of finding opportunities to show your workforce that you believe in them. Talk to individual employees about the skills and characteristics they have that reinforce your trust in them. Give over leadership of small projects entirely to teams on occasion. Importantly, be transparent in your own activities to show your workforce that you can be trusted to guide and support them in their efforts. 

Effective Communication

One of the most important habits to cultivate as a participative leader is effective communication. When miscommunications occur, this can lead to errors and conflicts. With a participative style, solid communication is particularly vital as it helps to ensure the collaborative process stays on-track by clarifying the aims and imperatives of the project throughout. As such, you need to take opportunities to cultivate communications skills that are consistent with participative leadership. These include communicative clarity, active listening, and recognizing non-verbal cues. 

Wrapping Up

Being a participative leader is a collaborative and democratic approach to business. There are a few different variations of this style of management, ranging from the more authoritative autocratic type, to the collective approach that sees you as purely a facilitator of your team’s needs. Whatever route you take, it’s important to recognize the key characteristics of a participative leader and cultivate the habits that improve your efficacy. It’s not always an easy style to embrace, but under the right circumstances you can empower your team to achieve positive and sometimes innovative outcomes.