Known Model of Participative Management
by Don Plunkett, PhD
In current business literature we find an increasing focus on “participative” management.
With today’s knowledge-based economy, many decisions cannot
be made without insight from employees. While there is a plethora
of literature advocating various methodologies that “tap
the knowledge base of the workforce,” the jury is out on
which to use, or even if they are effective at all. We read reports
of resentful employees feeling deceived by management when their
input is not taken seriously, and of others who fear they will “say
too much” and risk their job security from being honest.
It has been said that even in democratic nations, democracy ends “after
the morning cup of tea or coffee,” as employees enter the
workplace and their voices are not heard with that democratic standard
demanded of government. There is increasing interest, in leadership
and management practices, on the democratization of the workforce.
But as often as systems theorists advocate looking at the “whole
business system,” it seems that one part of the system is
taken for granted and overlooked: its very structure! If “participative” management
is built upon a hierarchical structure, can its decision-making
processes be truly democratic? And if our human nature includes
an integral inner reality, call it enlightenment or call it spirituality,
can it be overlooked?
Much of the available participative management literature offers
keen insights on how to improve organizational performance; but
in essence we are still just left with the same autocratic structures
working with new quasi-democratic processes. The intent is noble;
but the results are often dysfunctional. Not infrequently, employees
leave their meeting halls scoffing about how their input will not
be taken into consideration, and how their time was wasted!
An authentic, lasting solution must be integrative, and unify
the many dimensions of life–from business that focuses
on the material, to the spiritual that focuses on the inner life.
One such integrative approach to leadership, inclusive of all
those involved in a decision with the respect referred to as
the “I/Thou” relationship, has been practiced globally
for over a century but has remained virtually unnoticed by business
The Bahá’í faith is based on practical and
identifiable social applications, such as principles of equality
and the pursuit of a global commonwealth. In Bahá’í practice,
consultation is the lifeblood of democratic structure. Some Bahá’ís
indeed find this particular practice of consultation a useful management
tool. One need not be a Bahá’í, however, to
benefit from a model of consultation and a truly participative,
democratic management structure.
The problem with top-down management, whether
in its more traditional forms or in today’s various participative versions, is that
employee “buy-in” will ultimately determine the effectiveness
of decisions. American management guru Peter Drucker said that
for a decision to be effective, the employees “must make
it their own.” That may be true, but how can a decision be
one’s own for everyone when there are natural differences
of opinion even between two people, let alone an entire organization?
Bahá’í consultation addresses this Achilles’ heel
of participative management through the merging of our inner human
nature with practical decision-making methodologies. True consultation
is “spiritual conference” in an atmosphere of fellowship.
While many may think fellowship is not something relevant to the
workplace, human resource managers from some of the world’s
largest and most successful corporations indeed are busy trying
to ensure that employees share common values to help promote an
atmosphere of cooperation toward company goals.
Bahá’í consultation simply takes this a step
further and asks that members strive toward “unanimity” in
decisions. Information is gathered from the widest and most diverse
segment of personnel practicable, and members are encouraged to
speak out without attaching egos to the opinions expressed, notably
their own. Mature consultation is said to occur when participants
can freely change their own opinions in front of their peers without
feeling compelled to defend them as their own. But the truly distinguishing
feature of Bahá’í consultation is not so much
in its inclusiveness, but in the unified atmosphere in which final
decisions are arrived at. Bahá’ís are encouraged
to arrive at “unanimous” final decisions. The ideal
is to vote in favor of a majority decision in an act of support
The Bahá’í model is proof of how the inner
human dimension can add life to the participative methodologies
advocated in today’s literature. As employees strive toward
fellowship and feel that management is truly listening to their
concerns, they can submit more willingly to the majority in an
act of selflessness. This noble act of “letting go of self
for the benefit of the group” in itself is said to increase
their desire and ability to be part of a functional team, and to
help them overcome even the most subtle Western tendencies toward
individualism. And ironically, these same individuals often find
themselves more in control of their own destiny, as they find themselves
in an environment that takes into consideration their individual
Plunkett is a businessperson and adjunct professor of graduate
business at the
City University of New York
is president of United
E. J. Wenzel, personal communication, March 8, 2004
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