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Leaders who urge workers to participate in decisions need to open up in turn, study finds

May 21, 2015

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (718) 398-7642 or (917) 903-9287, press@aom.org

 “In short, go all out or don’t go at all”

A supervisor solicits ideas and suggestions from workers, hears them out even when disagreeing with them, and uses suggestions from the group in making decisions. Given the natural human resistance to yield decision-making, how is the group likely to respond to such initiatives?  

With little change at first, but, once past a certain threshold, with considerably improved performance, according to new research involving some 770 workers and 220 supervisors at three different companies. 

And key to passing that threshold, concludes the study in the June issue of the Academy of Management Journal, is bosses' willingness to be forthcoming in turn and, in the words of the paper, "openly share, discuss, and communicate important information needed to make decisions and form judgments." Without the confidence that information-sharing fosters, the study suggests, employees may actually come to "hold a negative assessment of the leader's participative action, interpreting it as a way to increase their workload and responsibilities with no reward."   

Making such points is important, the authors contend, because managers frequently assume "that a moderate degree of participative leadership may be enough to improve employees' performance. This is a common phenomenon in organizations – participation is widely recognized but often done half-heartedly by managers." 

Comments Catherine K. Lam of the City University of Hong Kong, a co-author of the study with Xu Huang and Simon C. H. Chan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, "I see this same attitude in many of my MBA students – namely, that participative leadership is simply a convenient instrument to project a positive impression on subordinates. The results of our study suggest that employees are smart enough to recognize whether their bosses genuinely engage in participative decision-making. Information-sharing is an indication that their engagement is for real.    

She adds: "It is no secret that participative leadership is a challenge for managers, and this study reinforces the message that a casual approach will not only fall short but may very well make things worse. In short, go all out or don't go at all."   

The study's findings emerge from an analysis of surveys administered to office workers and their supervisors at a textile manufacturer; to call-center workers and their bosses at a telecommunications company; and to manufacturing workers and their supervisors at a garment factory. "Although we collected data from Chinese organizations," the authors acknowledge, "these companies have employed international consulting firms to launch company-wide employee-involvement campaigns and have heavily invested in the development of training programs for managers and employees, increasing their exposure to Western-style participative management." 

Workers or supervisors responded to statements about the following on a scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree: 

Supervisor's participative leadership, asked of subordinates: for example, "encourages work-group members to express ideas/suggestions," "uses work-group suggestions to make decisions," and "makes decisions based only on his/her own ideas". 

Leader's information-sharing, asked of subordinates: for example, "explains company decisions," "explains how work group fits into the company," and "explains his/her decisions to work-group." 

Subordinates' work performance, asked of supervisors: for example, "always completes duties specified in job description," "fulfills all job requirements," and "usually cannot finish the key task of the job." 

Leadership effectiveness, asked of subordinates: for example, "is a good leader," and "motivates team members." 

The professors found that low to middling measures of participative leadership were accompanied by little or no change in worker performance. But above those levels, a sharp rise was seen if information-sharing was high, even while there was no improvement in performance if information-sharing was low. The authors see this as a demonstration of the "threshold effect, illustrating how the relationship between participative leadership and task performance follows a J-shaped pattern in the case of high information-sharing but not when information-sharing is low." 

What accounts for the upsurge in worker performance? In the words of the study, “Employees tend to search for interconnected information in order to make sense of participative leadership behavior… Perceptions of high information-sharing enhance the adoption of participation schema, which helps employees dissolve their defensive cognitions…and consequently improves work performance. In contrast, perceptions of low information-sharing – regardless of the level of participative leadership – may give employees inconsistent cues and create uncertainty about the consequences of participation, thereby constraining employees’ attention and work effort.” 

In conclusion, the professors urge companies to foster “effective participative leadership by facilitating information-sharing among employees, leaders, and companies. For example, leaders should be trained to foster-two-way communication with their employees, such that employees have all the information needed to understand how much participation the organization expects, the possible positive consequences of participation, and the good participative intentions of their leaders.” 

The paper, “The Threshold Effect of Participative Leadership andthe Role of Leader Information-Sharing," is in the June issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management PerspectivesAcademy of Management Learning and EducationAcademy of Management Annalsand Academy of Management Discoveries 

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