Employee Participation—Part I: What it is (really) and why it works (usually).

In this post, part of a series on change management & implementation, we go a bit deeper into the topic of participation. Why? There is consistent evidence that stakeholder and employee participation in change planning and implementation is associated with greater success of change efforts.  This does not mean that participation is a panacea or that it works equally well in all situations.  I think it does mean that if you are leading any type of implementation effort that requires people to change (which is most, if not all of them!), you should think carefully about how you are addressing employee and stakeholder participation as part of your change approach.

Over the last 10 years, I have come to view participation as essential to effective implementation. This was an evolutionary process, informed by trial and error (emphasis on error!) with different methods and approaches, as well as an important shift in how I viewed both my role and stakeholders’ roles in the implementation process.  In short, I learned to control less, listen more, and get a lot better at creating truly collaborative environments.   (I wrote a bit about this transformation in this post.)  Facilitating effective participation is not easy. It demands nuance and skill, but in the end, I’ve always found the benefits outweigh the costs.

Plan before your execute. 

In writing this, I aim to provide a fairly comprehensive background on participation, which can be used to inform both planning and execution of participation as part of a change management approach.  So, we'll take it in two parts. 

  • Planning:  In Part I, this post, I provide information that can aid you in planning how you'll use participation in your change efforts.  It includes findings from research on the benefits and challenges of participatory approaches as well as a framework to help you align your methods to your context.   
  • Execution:  Part II, which will be released next week, will focus on execution, providing practical tips for a variety of participatory methods, (e.g., surveys, interviews, design sessions, etc.) 

The information provided in this post is drawn from published research on participation as well as my own experience using participatory methods in change and implementation efforts over the last 20 years.  I share research findings that I feel are most relevant to this post and readers of this blog. However, there are alternate theories, frameworks and assertions that may be equally valid.

Why (not) include participation in your change efforts?

Real participation leads to real benefits. 

A literature review of 14 studies on participation (Oreg, 2011) reflects that participation has a variety of positive effects on employees and is associated with increased support/reduced resistance to change (see graphic at right). 

Additionally, in a meta-analysis of 47 studies, Miller and Monge (1986) found that participation is associated with employee satisfaction and to some degree with greater productivity. (The theory on productivity is that through stakeholder participation a) better quality information is included in decision-making and b) stakeholders have greater knowledge of the change that will be implemented, thereby making implementation easier.)  Interestingly, these researchers did not find evidence to support the idea that participation works better with some types of employees (managers vs. staff) or in some industries vs. others.

Finally, Miller and Monge found that satisfaction is impacted when employees/stakeholders perceive themselves to be working in a participatory environment, even when they do not directly participate in specific decisions.  Others have noted that participatory environment or climate is affected by the structure of participation opportunities, including the content (scope and importance of issues on which people engage), authority of participants (ability to act on their recommendations), and breadth (the number and diversity of employees/stakeholders involved).  Some research indicates that ‘increases’ in each of these dimensions is associated with greater support of policy changes. (Schwochau, 1997).

Participation is not a “magic formula”.  It takes skill and commitment on the part of change leaders.    

Participation can be viewed like a wrench — it's a tool which comes in different sizes and types and it's useful, but not the right tool for every change problem.  In situations where management does not wish to share decision-making control with others, where employees or other stakeholder are passive or apathetic, or in corporate cultures that take comfort in bureaucracy, participatory efforts can be challenged.  (O Brien, 2002).   

As summarized here by Douglas McGregor, a professor of Management at MIT in the first half of the last century:  

“[Some proponents of participation] give the impression that it is a formula which can be applied by any manager regardless of his skill, that virtually no preparation is necessary for its use, and that is can spring full-blown into existence to transform industrial relationships overnight.”  (Pasmore and Fagans, 1992).

Wouldn’t that be nice?  Sadly, it’s not reality.  As it turns out, effectively integrating participation into change efforts takes skill and effort. 

In addition to requiring skill, effective participation efforts also requires honest commitment from management and those leading change or implementation efforts.  Managers who view participation as a threat to their status, authority or knowledge will be unlikely to lead effective participation programs. Likewise, superficial or paternalistic participation efforts — e.g., when participation is viewed by management as a reward to employees — are easily identified by staff as inauthentic. (Kanter, 1982).

Not everyone wants or knows how to participate.

As you plan for employee participation in your change efforts it's important to have realistic expectations.  Not all “potential participants” desire to participate and those that do may not yet have the skills to do so productively.

Thanks, but no thanks. 

As Jean Neumann found in her research on participation in the manufacturing industry, a variety of factors can lead individuals to make a rational choice to “not” participate.  There are structural factors, such who makes decisions and how input is used.  There are relational factors, such as how the organization selects people to participate; and finally social factors such as values or norms that may make open participation uncomfortable for some.  (Glew, 1995).

Neumann further notes, as have others, that participation requires courage. (Pasmore and Fagans, 1992).  I have certainly seen it in sessions I’ve facilitated and felt it in those I’ve participated in.  To openly share what you think and/or feel, to collaborate in the development of a solution that may not be universally well received, to productively challenge the thinking or conclusions of others…all requires a willingness to take on some degree of personal risk and responsibility.  

Finally, it's important to recognize that participation takes time, often above and beyond one's core work duties.  It's not too hard to imagine that some opt-out or avoid participation as a practical time management strategy. 

Given all of these factors, as you develop your participation approach, you may wish to ensure the rewards for participation — recognition, professional development, etc — are explicit to potential participants. The risks and costs surely will be. 

Ok, but how? 

Like so many things, the ability to be a good participant is not inherent.  This is important to keep in mind, especially for those who may be working to increase participation in organizations where it has not been used widely in the past.   

I have experienced this with employees of a strongly hierarchical organization who were accustomed to the “big unveiling” of decisions only after they were “completely baked”.  They generally reacted with confusion when ideas were shared before they were final, in order to gather feedback or simply to keep them informed of developments.  Some felt management was abdicating its responsibility by asking for their ideas and input — “That’s not my job, it's yours!”  Others felt that if they shared an opinion and it wasn’t immediately acted upon the participation effort was a sham.  It took several years of effort, including consistently demonstrating how employee input informed decisions, in order to increase the employees’ (and managers !) comfort level with and nuanced understanding of a participatory approach.

Put more eloquently, in their review of research on participation and change Pasmore and colleagues (1992) quote Kurt Lewin, who began writing about the human dynamics of change in the 1940s.  Lewin notes:

“…Only through practical experience can one learn the peculiar democratic combination of conduct which includes responsibility toward the group, ability to recognize differences of opinion without considering the other person a criminal, and readiness to accept criticism in a matter of fact way while offering criticism with sensitivity for the other person’s feelings”. 

 

What is participation, exactly?

Participation defined.

There are a host of widely varying definitions of participation.  The one provided below was explicitly developed to be broad, encompassing a range of activities that can be regarded as participation. 

 "A conscious and intended effort by individuals at a higher level in an organization to provide visible extrarole or role-expanding opportunities for individuals or groups at a lower level in the organization to have a greater voice in one or more areas of organizational performance. The higher level and lower level distinction will most likely be reflected by hierarchical level, but can encompass any situation where one individual has legitimate power, authority, or control over another. " (Glew, 1995).

Thinking of participation as a continuum. 

What one person or organization thinks of as participation, and their reasons for engaging employees or stakeholders, can be quite different from what others consider it to be.  To try to get a handle on this diversity, I’ve developed a framework of participation as a continuum, drawing from a variety of research, as well as my own experience.  The aim of the framework is to help those leading change efforts to first think about their intentions for participation as part of their change efforts, in order to then inform and better align their methods and expectations to those intentions.  This is critical.  Change research tells us that alignment (and misalignment) of management words and actions impacts change success.  (Holten, 2013; Lines 2004). I’d argue that the importance of such ‘behavioral integrity' extends to how participation is used as part of change management efforts.

 

Organizational Intent

The framework starts by presenting a continuum of organizational intent for change, informed by the work of Pasmore and Fagans (1992).  This reflects an organization’s degree of openness to input related to the change from employees and stakeholders, with control being the least open and co-creation being the greatest.  The organization's intent can be situational, related specifically to the content or type of change currently being considered, or dispositional, related more to the culture of the organization.

You might wonder "what's the best intent"?  Tricky question.  There are some theorists who suggest a moral duty to involve employees in organizational decision-making.  In this thinking, it would seem broad participation is a requirement.  Others, such as Rosabeth Kanter, have advocated for a situational approach, to ensure that hammer of participation does not see every type of organizational change as a nail.  (1982)

Writing specifically about the use of teams or working groups, Kanter suggests that some situations and problems are more well suited to participation — there is a need for new/different expertise, a desire to build commitment, problems without a clear owner — than others — there is a clear source of expertise,  a decision has already been made, no one really cares about the issue (Kanter, 1982).   One group of researchers found that employee engagement on tactical tasks more related to the specifics of their work, as opposed to strategic decisions, was associated with greater outcomes such as satisfaction and support of change. (Glew, 1995).  

My opinion is that the research does not provide consistent answers.  What does seem apparent to me is that prior to launching a participation effort, you should be clear on why you are doing it, what you hope to get out of it, and how you plan to use employee input.  This can then lead the way to forming an aligned approach. 

Participant Role

The second aspect of the framework deals with the expected participatory role of employees, also informed by the work of Pasmore and Fagans (1992).  These actions are necessarily impacted by the organizational intent or disposition towards employee participation.  For example, in a control environment, such as when a decision has already been made and input is not desired, one would anticipate that participation on the part of employees would be designed to support compliance or conforming with the change.  

As noted earlier, not all employees will automatically have the requisite skills for in-depth participation.  When engaging in participation approaches at the alignment and co-creation end of the continuum, change leaders should be prepared to help participants through a learning curve. 

Participation Methods

The third part of the framework relates to the participatory methods that align to each area on the continuum.  For example, in a control environment we would anticipate mostly information sharing methods would be used, such as written communication or presentations, but would not anticipate design sessions, etc. However, at the co-creation end of the continuum it's likely that all methods would be used in some way.  Finally, it's assumed that when methods are used to garner input there is also an appropriate organizational use of and response to that input.  Without a response component, there is little value in collecting input using any method.  

Risk, Reward and Responsibility

Finally, in the framework I outline the varying degree of risk and reward, as well as the organizational responsibility for response, along the continuum — with risk, reward and responsibility all increasing as one moves towards the co-creation end of the continuum.  These are real factors that should be considered when evaluating the type of participation to undertake.  Relatedly, I would argue that the degree of skill required of both change leaders as well as participants also increases as one moves up the continuum.  As noted in the previous section, you should expect to experience a learning curve when using participatory methods.  As such, the co-creation end of the continuum may not be an appropriate initial goal for an organization or facilitators with limited experience using participatory methods.

Your feedback is appreciated. 

Whether you planning for an upcoming change effort, or have one underway, this framework may help you to better reflect on your intentions for participation as part of your effort and evaluate which options are best suited for your context.   Feedback and comments on the framework is appreciated and would be a valuable contribution to this discussion.   Please share your ideas using the comments section below.

Up next, practical tips of the effective use of participation

In our next post in this change series, we provide practical tips on executing a participation component of your change effort,  providing good practices related specific methods, such as interviews, brainstorming and design sessions.


References

Glew, D. J. "Participation in Organizations: A Preview of the Issues and Proposed Framework for Future Analysis." Journal of Management 21.3 (1995): 395-421. Web.  See here.  

Holten, Ann-Louise, and Sten Olof Brenner. "Leadership Style and the Process of Organizational Change." Leadership & Organization Development Journal Leadership & Org Development J 36.1 (2015): 2-16. Web. See here. 

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. "Dilemmas of Managing Participation." Organizational Dynamics 11.1 (1982): 5-27. Web.  See here. 

Lines, Rune. "Influence of Participation in Strategic Change: Resistance, Organizational Commitment and Change Goal Achievement." Journal of Change Management 4.3 (2004): 193-215. Web.  See here. 

Miller, K. I., and P. R. Monge. "Participation, Satisfaction, And Productivity: A Meta-Analytic Review." Academy of Management Journal 29.4 (1986): 727-53. Web. See here. 

O’Brien, Geraldine. "Participation as the Key to Successful Change – a Public Sector Case Study." Leadership & Organization Development Journal Leadership & Org Development J 23.8 (2002): 442-55. Web.  See here. 

Oreg, S., M. Vakola, and A. Armenakis. "Change Recipients' Reactions to Organizational Change: A 60-Year Review of Quantitative Studies." The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 47.4 (2011): 461-524. Web. See here.  

Pasmore, W. A., and Mary Fagans. "Participation, Individual Development, and Organizational Change: A Review and Synthesis." Journal of Management 18.2 (1992): 375-97. Web.  See here. 

Schwochau, Susan, John Delaney, Paul Jarley, and Jack Fiorito. "Employee Participation and Assessments of Support for Organizational Policy Changes." J Labor Res Journal of Labor Research 18.3 (1997): 379-401. Web.  See here.