A Little Known Model of Participative Management

Don Plunkett, PhD

September 15, 2015

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 professionals.

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 and unity.

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 contributions.

Don Plunkett is a businessperson and adjunct professor of graduate business at the City University of New York is president of United Consultation International.

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