Read Ralph's Book The Leadership Maker
Follow Us:
Phone: 207-653-2552


Participation and Why It Doesn't Always Work

Home > Articles > The Workplace

Participation and Why It Doesn't Always Work

If you have been following along with the articles I have written for the newsletter, you may pick up a trend. I appear to be habitually positive. I don't have to hear other people challenge my positive approach very often before I start to wonder, "Are they right and am I missing the world spinning around me or am I getting it right and need to just lean a little harder into a good idea?" If I truly look at the question, "Is having people participate in the decisions at work a good thing?" I believe that I have to reexamine my own ideas from time to time and this feels like that time. So, I set out to find out why employee participation as a concept doesn't always work. I began by searching the internet and found a definition for participation

Business Definition for Employee Participation

  • The involvement of workers in decision making. Employee participation can take either a representational or direct form. Representation takes place through bodies such as consultative committees. Direct participation can be achieved through communication methods such as newsletters, employee attitude surveys, team briefing, and open-book management, or through involvement initiatives such as self-managed teams, suggestion programs, and quality circles.
  • Pretty good definition? I liked it and would add another sentence about cultural events. Next, I went on-line to find a place where people might challenge our "positive" thinking (at least around Priority Learning) that participation in the workplace will lead to better, faster and more satisfying workplace and work environment. I found this article and here is the first paragraph.

    Why Sham Employee Participation Is Worse Than No Participation at All

    From Bob Sutton at (

    "I got an email for an unhappy colleague in Europe this morning, complaining about all the hours that he spent on a faculty committee that was supposed to provide "user input" that would allegedly shape the design of a new building. He complained: "I feel so used for having agreed to be part of the building committee. I haven't felt this way since I came to [the university]. Chart Not one thing I said or argued for the whole time mattered. Not one thing the consulting company who did the early study of our needs for space mattered....[My wife] warned me when I joined the committee that they would use the faculty committee for legitimation and do what they wanted anyway."

    I hung in there and read the article and tried to understand why this darn employee participation thing doesn't always work and finally gave up. No matter how I tried to look at it, research it, or argue with it, all information led to the same outcome, it really does work if the environment and business is ready. So, mid way through my project to find out why participation might not work in some environments and businesses, I realized that it was too hard for some organizations or businesses to adjust to. After discovering that it was a business and company problem and not a people problem, I then remembered my promise to challenge my own thinking. In the end I decided to give you the reasons why participation doesn't always work for some companies and some environments. Here are my thoughts:

    Institutions think that participation is something that they should do...
    Right now research is being conducted on what is called Institutional Theory. This theory implies that organizations try to be trendy and take symbolic action based on whatever is in business vogue at the moment. We saw this in Total Quality Management (TQM) and Management by Objectives (MBO). While they were trying to do the right thing, they clearly missed the fact that these objectives are not things to do, but instead are new ways of life for employees and companies. In general terms most of the initiatives like TQM and MBO are considered failures by employees. No one likes to feel like they failed. Once the participative power is given to people, it is very hard to take it away. Like a raise, once it is given you cannot go back and retract it next week without a pretty serious backlash. As a result most employees feel that they are starting another 'flavor of the month' change.

    Participation challenges traditional power structures in organizations...
    When you ask people to participate you are asking them to do the boss's job. Or at least that's what it feels like to many employees and many leaders. That's kind of like thinking that it's the boss's job to make the organization better but the employee's job to do what they are told. The traditional management in some organizations made the rules, created the answers, and enforced the standards. If you introduce a participative process into the mix, then who is in charge? Who works for whom? Who is accountable? The traditional management wants to say, "It's working just fine the way it is."

    Organizations don't know how to begin or sustain a participative effort...
    Based on the two challenges above, your average institution is already heading into an employee participation effort with more than a little anxiety. Bosses don't know what they are supposed to do while employees are in the same boat. On top of all that, the company may not have more than an intuitive idea of what they hope to accomplish. They start, it gets difficult, they try again, it continues to be difficult, another crisis comes up and magically the participative process is put on hold, minimized or even worse, buried. We are, after all, Americans and we think that everything can be built in 30 days or less and, if it takes more than that, we need to do something else.

    Now may be the moment when you are expecting me to put a positive spin on the bad news above and provide hope and inspiration. As you all know by now, this is the work that we do and we feel that we have made dents and progress in helping organizations become more participative. We believe that participation is the key to sustaining success - success that will keep organizations in business for generations to come.

    We are interested to hear what you have to say on this subject. Is participation hard to master? We welcome your feedback and ask that you answer by e-mailing Ralph at

    4 (1)


    Ralph Twombly
    Priority Learning

    In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.



    Submit A Comment:



    Preparation for Building a Culture

    Every Year Tells a Story

    The Pillars of Organizational Culture

    Magic - What is in this book?

    Dunning Kruger Effect

    The language of leading through caring (part II)

    Why does a flourishing organization matter?

    Peer Communication and Care

    Communications That Can Enhance your Relationships

    Persistence: A Vital Leadership Quality

    Increasing Meeting Participation


    Time for a Paradigm Shift