A core concept in organizational communication, participative processes refer to a wide range of efforts aimed at initiating or enhancing the involvement of employees in decision-making activities to which they would otherwise not have access by virtue of their positioning within an organizational hierarchy. Participative processes are generally discussed in opposition to or as a way to ameliorate problems associated with the routine functioning of bureaucratic hierarchy, that is, traditional top-down organizational structures. Top-down hierarchies allocate tasks, responsibility, and authority across positions in an organization in ways that control and coordinate organizational processes, but that may also inhibit flows of information and expertise, alienate employees, and, in so doing, diminish the organization’s abilities to solve problems.
Participative processes take a variety of forms. In early formulations as practiced in the US and other industrial contexts, participation was conceived as essentially managerially driven, a prerogative managers exercised at their discretion. The manager’s choice to consult with employees, to whatever degree and on selected issues, was a strategic one, made in response to the demands of a particular decision-making situation, and without accompanying changes in the organization’s formal distribution of responsibility and authority. In other contexts, participation is practiced in formal programmatic initiatives, frequently organized around the creation of contexts for communication that function as alternative or parallel structures within the organization. These programs include programs for quality of work life, quality circles, Scanlon plans and other profit-sharing arrangements, and, more recently, employee involvement programs and autonomous or self-directed work teams. In Europe, participation has been strongly linked to national political processes and historically incorporated through legislative demands and union contracts into the formal functioning of organizations, such as in Swedish and German models of employee–employer co-determination. In other contexts, participation is practiced in ways chosen by employees who are organizational owners, as in employee stock ownership plans, worker cooperatives, and other alternatively structured organizations.
This variety suggests considerable diversity in the philosophies underlying forms of participation, the objectives that are sought, and the levels of power attributed to management and employees. Generally, informal participation practices and participation programs, particularly in the US, have functioned as ways to elicit employee commitment and increase the subjective involvement of employees in addressing organizational needs. Organizations have tended to alternate between cycles of focus on participation practices and on managerial control, depending on the state of the labor market or other economic or technological conditions. In legally mandated co-determination systems, in contrast, employees are viewed as roughly equal stakeholders in decision-making carried out in structures with employee representation. Such systems reflect political party philosophies, the strength of union membership, and the influence of unions in government. Finally, in cooperatives and employee-owned organizations, participation is conceived as a fundamental right within the democratic or ownership ideologies upon which such organizations are based.
Researchers assessing the effects of participation generally ask whether participation processes are related to instrumental outcomes, chiefly job satisfaction and increased productivity, and assess the validity of models explaining how such effects are realized. In the affective model, participation is thought to enhance job satisfaction because employees find value in being involved in decision-making processes. The mere act of participation achieves benefits because participation enhances individuals’ self-esteem and their feelings of control, trust, and identification with the organization, and reduces employees’ resistance to decisions that are made. In the cognitive model, participation is thought to improve productivity by increasing the amount of information available within the organization for problem-solving. This makes it further possible to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of organizational processes.
Research has found support for both the affective and cognitive models, with somewhat stronger support for the former. However, it is difficult to determine the reliability of these findings because studies generally do not distinguish rigorously between the forms of participation used and the dimensions upon which these forms differ, such as the degree of participation and the range of issues discussed. There is similar diversity in the conditions under which participation takes place. Essentially, there is so much variety in participation processes that it is difficult to know what aspects are critical in achieving particular effects.
Interest in participation perseveres due to the continuing need to draw on the knowledge, expertise, and problem-solving capacities of employees in increasingly global, knowledge-intensive, and team-oriented work. Researchers have more recently focused on the communicative and collaborative dimensions of participation, since it is through communication networks that team members are brought together and through their interaction that problem-solving takes place. But the authenticity of motives for participation programs has been a perennial question, as commitment on the part of organizational leaders ebbs and flows with economic and political conditions. Even with contemporary interest in creating flexible teams and collaborative communities, critics compare what companies say about the importance of participation with what they do in restricting employee voice, exercising arbitrary interference, and constraining employees’ abilities to develop knowledge. Even more frustrating is the recognition that efforts to promote participation, regardless of their success, can produce a range of paradoxical effects that undermine desired outcomes. This is because participation is simultaneously a perceptual, political, structural, and ultimately interactional phenomenon, a complex process that is most frequently initiated by managers, but that requires the active engagement of employees to give it life and meaning.
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