Leaders who urge workers to participate in decisions need to open up in turn, study finds
May 21, 2015
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“In short, go all out or don’t go at
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 Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.