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Participatory Leadership

The best leaders don’t already have the answers – they know how to find them.

Many leaders earned their role by demonstrating their ability to solve problems and deliver results. It’s a common misperception that in a leadership role you need to exert this even more by having all the answers and making decisions all on your own.  In fact, this mindset is often the downfall for great leadership.

One of the strongest attributes you can bring to your team is participatory leadership. With this style, you help create an inclusive environment where employees feel comfortable sharing perspectives, exploring new ideas, and providing information you may not already have. It also allows your employees the opportunity to learn and grow. 

Participatory leadership benefits leaders, employees, and organizations. By engaging others, you have the opportunity to find the best, most informed answers – and you have boosted employee engagement and development. Even though you are the ultimate decision maker – and may make an unpopular decision – you have provided the opportunity for employees to learn about various considerations that go into the decision. 

How to incorporate participatory processes into your work

You can help create a balance between your position of authority and building participation by being clear and candid about what is open for discussion and exploration.  

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure you have the right people at the table. While you don’t need to include everyone in every decision, it’s important to spend time thinking about who is already involved and who needs to be. If there are perspectives or groups missing, figure out how you can bring them to the table. Consider looking outside your agency as well. Are there other agencies who can help move this work forward – or whose perspectives will be needed down the line? Are there program participants, communities, or other constituencies that will be affected by your work? What are the equity, access and inclusion issues involved? Engaging others early can lead to better working relationships and outcomes. 
  • Think beyond meetings. Meetings are a great way to get a lot of people involved all at once. But there are other ways you can – and should – engage people. Some people may need more time to process information, conduct some research, or brainstorm new ideas. Some people may also feel less comfortable speaking up in a traditional meeting setting – especially if there are different power dynamics and knowledge bases at the table. Consider adding one-on-one discussions, surveys, and other opportunities for every person and style to participate. 
  • Explore methods to enhance participation. Don’t expect to walk into a discussion with a problem and expect people to have answers or ideas. Take some time to consider how you can effectively set up the meeting or discussion, how you plan to facilitate it, how you can enhance equity, access, and inclusion, and what questions will lead to a meaningful discussion. There are several helpful methods that can help you do this, such as consensus workshop methods, human-centered design, appreciative inquiry, and more. If you are unfamiliar with these techniques, consider asking a colleague to assist or engage experts who can help.

Engaging the experts at Management Analysis and Development

As you continue to build participatory leadership styles, you may encounter projects or problems that could benefit from expert-level facilitation. Management Analysis and Development (MAD) an enterprise-wide resource that can provide hands-on help to help you reach your immediate needs and model the participatory leadership style. MAD can help you gain deeper insights to make more informed decisions by facilitating meetings, conducting surveys and more.

Resources from the Enterprise

Enterprise Talent Development (ETD) offers Skills Development Courses on this topic. Review upcoming scheduled courses on the ETD website. 

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