Participatory Management -- Does the Practice Work?

Article excerpt

Participatory management. Self-managed teams. Employee empowerment.

Management theorists like to toss these terms around. But for most average workers, they amount to oxymorons.

Although participatory management has been a popular theme in management books, seminars and directives for the past decade, it hasn't worked very well in the real world. Part of the problem is that people can't agree on what participatory management even means, said T.J. Elliott, research director of Cavanaugh Leahy & Co., an organizational consulting firm based in New York. Although more than 400 books and articles have been written on the topic in the past decade, it's still very much an enigma, Elliott said. "We found that participatory management, which has long had a following in professional journals and academic circles, is growing in the mainstream business press as well as in organizational practices," he said. "But our study also revealed deep differences over the meaning of the term, scant guidance on how to implement participatory management, striking ambivalence about its efficacy and little appreciation of what it actually requires." Participatory management means employees have the authority to manage themselves and their workplaces, Elliott said. "It's clearly placing the role of decision-making in employee hands so they can participate in their own management." But in the work world, there is a lot of confusion over what participatory management entails. Concepts vary from using work teams to mandating employee involvement and to having employee suggestion programs, he said. Some companies equate participatory management with issuing stock options. Others identify "total quality management" efforts as participatory management programs. Still others say it's as simple as "getting out and hobnobbing with employees." Studies reflect the confusion. One study cited in Incentive magazine said fewer than 10 percent of companies have "true participatory management." Another, cited by the Journal of Commerce, said about 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies have worker involvement programs. The problem is many programs appear to solicit participation, but don't give employees real authority, he said. …