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Methods to Increase Staff Input in Organizational Decision Making

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to Gert Lüdeking

Core Document in the Module

Management is far too important to be left only to the managers

Participatory Management Schema


Whether you are responsible for setting up a new organization, a new NGO or CBO, a new department, or a new project, you want to ensure that the process of management will enhance the effectiveness of the organization.

If you are on a Board of Directors, you will want to give advice to the manager(s) that will make the organization stronger, but also most fair and humane. You may be a village chief looking to modernize your office and council. You may be the leader of a workers' organization, pressing for improvement in management that gives greater voice for staff, and more respect for and consideration of them. The guidelines here on how to make management more participatory will help you in your endeavours.

What Is It?

Participation is a much used word these days; it means different things in different contexts.

In training, the trainees benefit by participating in the activity being trained, they "learn from doing." In community work, participation means that the whole community, including those that do not usually speak up, participate in decisions that affect the future of the community. In games (eg poker), participation means that people are allowed to play (engage in the gambling).

Participatory management means that staff, not only the designated managers, have input and influence over the decisions that affect the organization. It is not the same as communal or co-operative management, where every staff member has the same weight in the decision making process. A voted majority, or a consensus, is not the final arbitrator for a contentious decision.

In participatory management, the designated managers (or manager) still have (or has) the final responsibility for making decisions and answering for them, but members of the staff who are affected by those decisions are actively sought to provide observations, analysis, suggestions and recommendations in the executive decision making process.

These guidelines can be used whole cloth when you are setting up a new organization, can be made as a major conscious decision for an ongoing organization, or can be slowly added piece by piece in an organization that is more monopolistic about decision making where decisions are made only at the top.

Benefits of Participation:

If you set things up as described below, you and the organization will benefit in many ways.

Your organization will run better if your staff are more loyal, feel needed and wanted, feel that they are respected, and feel that their opinions count. If you pro-actively seek their input into management decision making, you will contribute to all those things. Decisions tend to be better when they can call on a wider range of knowledge, information and experience. No matter how wise and experienced a boss may be, s/he does not have as much experience as the total of all her/his staff.

Trust is an important factor of leadership. Participatory approaches usually mean that decision making is more transparent. That, in turn, increases the trust of the staff, and the leadership of the manager is increased. And transparency itself is an added benefit to this approach.

When decisions are made in active consultation with the staff, there is less suspicion of illegal and immoral decisions being made in sneaky circumstances. As with community participation, the end result is that participatory management yields many benefits.

There are a few costs, however, to obtaining participatory input. One is that it takes time to obtain it, and decisions are therefor slower than when they are made unilaterally. When staff argue for a particular decision, but the regulations, the budget, the board, or the head office do not allow that decision, then staff will be disappointed; some may even ask why they participated. It needs the manager to show that even though they all wanted a particular path to be taken, circumstances beyond management – even beyond participatory management – hindered them from taking that path. When staff are hotly divided on a particular issue, this will be revealed when it appears as a management decision. Disagreements may affect the work. The manager must put in extra time and effort to reach a decision – with staff participation – that will reduce that schism.

While there are a few irritations in taking a participatory approach to management, the many benefits outweigh the costs.

Ways to Channel Participation:

If you choose to plan and implement a programme to increase staff participation in management decision making – and we encourage you to do so – you can devise many ways to make your organization more participatory.

Participation in decision making requires good communication; the more channels you can open up – the more you can have staff participate in managing the organization. Every chance you get, look for ways to talk with staff. Let them show you their achievements and frustrations. Staff will quickly see if you are sincere or not. Do not do this in a superficial or perfunctory manner. Develop a genuine interest in what they do. Show respect.

Set up a routine and regular participatory management meeting. See Meetings. Set up special sessions that allow (and encourage) staff input. Use job descriptions as your programme of increasing staff participation, and arrange annual review sessions to obtain staff input for making annual work plans.

One way I found useful was to put up a sign behind me at may desk, "Management is far too important to be left only to the managers." When visitors in my office remarked on it, or asked about it, I used the opportunity to explain the value of staff input into the process of management decision making.

Brainstorming is another method of pro-actively seeking participation in decision making. It is different than the others here in that it is aimed at communal decision making, not decision making that is moderated by the manager. It has its own separate module; see Brainstorm.

Give them management training aimed at non-managers; at least an introduction to the four basic questions.

Look at how your organization is running at present. Ask how – in what ways – staff already participate in management decision making. Generate ways you think that they can be encouraged to participate more. Design your programme to be appropriate for the conditions you face, and choose only what will work.

Paying Attention:

We all want to be respected and to be taken seriously. Your staff are no different.

You can quickly alienate and discourage staff if you act as if they are not there, act as if they do not count (ie are not important), or act as if they are part of the room decorations.

In contrast, if you listen to staff, ask their opinions, take them seriously, treat them wit respect, then they will respect themselves, the organization, and you, more. They will take their work more seriously; they will put in extra effort; they will be more productive. The more you can do this, then the more you exercise leadership.

Participatory management, at the very minimum, means that a manager pays attention to her/his staff. Put that into all the methods mentioned in this document.

Pay attention.

Management Meetings:

Another document in this module looks in more detail at management meetings. See Meetings. What is important here is that you can make management meetings an integral part of your programme to develop participatory management in your organization.

Such meetings should be held routinely and regularly. If you absent yourself from meetings, or cancel them too often, you lower the respect and importance you show to them. Both you and your staff can schedule other work around the time you select. Do not select a time when it is likely that anyone outside your control can call a different meeting that you are obliged to attend. The optimum frequency is two weeks (or a half month) between meetings. Some managers meet weekly, others monthly. Choose what is most appropriate. Ensure that they are held on the same week-day and at the same time – every meeting.

Make every attempt to make these meetings decision-making meetings. It is so easy to waste time with formalities, and listening to individuals who like to hear themselves talk, wasting time on hearing information that everyone already knows, or should know. Do not allow verbal reports when those reports should have been written and circulated before the meeting. Meeting time should only be decision-making time.

See the document, Meetings, which explains these principles in more detail.

What is important here is that you want staff members to contribute to the management decision making process. (Note also that meetings can be a burden rather than an asset if they are not conducted well). Not all of their suggestions will be automatically accepted, if they are contradicted by the board (of directors or a steering committee with powers of making policy), the constitution or official policy document of the organization (if it has one), the law of the land, the available budget for the organization, or its stated purpose, goals, objectives, strategy or other officially stated parameters. Suggestions that can not be followed through because of those limitations may be made by some staff members. Thank the staff member for his/her contribution, explain why it can not be accepted, and ensure them that management can only make executive decisions, and can not contradict policy.

Meetings are opportunities to let staff know how, in various ways, that they are valuable, have useful ideas to offer, and are respected. Just inviting them to attend meetings is not sufficient. They may feel that they have better things to do, especially if meetings are not productive and meaningful to them. It is necessary to ensure that their attendance is productive, and seen to be productive.

It is OK to have different meetings for different categories of staff; eg one for support staff and another for professional or line staff. Sometimes it is useful for the manager of the support staff to chair support staff participatory management meetings. If so, the overall manager should sit in the meetings to show interest and make sure that support staff know that they are needed and respected.

If you ask a secretary or other support staff to take notes during management meetings, they may have to concentrate on recording and not participate fully in the decision making process. In such cases make sure that you spend time with that person, depending on the topics, asking for opinions.

Consider giving staff some training - management training for non managers. The four key questions, and other management issues for non managers are included in the module, Management Training.

Special Sessions:

By organizing special sessions, you have a further opportunity to encourage honest and candid contributions by the staff.

The most necessary thing to remember is that such sessions can easily become superficial, eg for friendly but insubstantial exchanges and pleasantries, for repeating time-worn clichés and empty slogans, or for impressing the visiting VIP. As part of your programme, ensure that genuine contributions to organizational decision making are offered by staff.

Special sessions can be set up for various occasions, including the visit of a VIP from the head office, from the government, or from a major donor agency. It can be for a major restructuring exercise, or a national event that calls for refection by all organizations in the country.

The SWOT session, as part of an agency transforming from an emergency response (charity) agency to a sustainable development (empowerment) agency, is an example of a special session. SWOT stands for "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats," and can be used on many occasions as well as the one in that module aimed at transforming an agency or programme.

The appearance of an organizational crisis, whether it has internal or external factors, or both, is also a good opportunity to organize a special occasion.

The arrival of an outside intervening consultant, eg for management training or monitoring and assessment, are all further events that can offer opportunities for setting up special sessions in which you can encourage staff participation in management decision making.

Job Descriptions:

The way you use job descriptions can also be an opportunity for contributing to participatory management.

Very often a job description is designed initially when an organization is set up. It might be written by a planner or an outside consultant. After its initial use, it is filed (or lost) and never seen again. Used that way, the job description contributes nothing to participatory management, and has little value.

Regular reviews of a job description, by the concerned staff and his/her supervisor, modifying its content to reflect changing conditions and in response to changing tasks and responsibilities, then signing it by both staff and supervisor, can contribute to participatory management in many ways. It is not the job descriptions themselves, but how you use them, that contributes to participatory management.

See "Using Job Descriptions."

Annual Reviews:

Conducting an annual review with all the stake holders in a development programme is an important and valuable way to get feedback on recent activities, and input to be inserted in the upcoming annual work plan. Similarly, an annual review for staff within a single organization can be (if done right) a useful way to review the past year, successes, failures, lessons learned, and to obtain suggestions that can be put into the next annual work plan for that organization. It is a good tool for exercising participatory management.

Make sure, when you conduct an annual review, that all participants attend and that no participant can be distracted by the calls of daily work or by issues at home, or by anything outside the review itself. It is therefore better to arrange that the meeting be held away from the location of the organization's office. A conference centre (or a school or some other venue that an be temporarily converted into a conference centre) that is away from any urban location, and without telephones, is best. Complement that choice of venue by announcing that all staff members should suspend their regular work, not allow any appointments on that day, be prepared to pay attention to the review one hundred per cent.

You may find it interesting and useful to hire an outside experienced participatory appraisal (PRA, PAR) facilitator to conduct the review for you.

Structure the annual review so that all will participate (in decision making), all will feel safe and free to express their opinions. Ensure that the MC or facilitator thanks each participant for every contribution, even the less than popular suggestions. As well as just holding the annual review, it is up to you to ensure that staff are listened to, and that they feel they are listened to. They are important; show them that you know that. (A manager has only one resource; his or her people; s/he succeeds or fails on their behaviour). Make sure that their suggestions and recommendations are reflected in the annual work plan, or that they understand why some might not be feasible.

See: annual reviews.


Participatory management can improve the effectiveness and capacity of an organization. It lies among the sixteen elements of organizational capacity. See: Sixteen." It contributes to good leadership by management. It contributes to increased transparency in organizational decision making.

Among the slogans that direct you to god management, the phrase, "Do not work hard; get results." That is the strategy of good managers. If someone is working hard, s/he is not managing.

The only asset of a manager is people. If those people are more dependable, loyal, willing to work their all and give the extra effort, if they trust their leaders and know that they are safe, then the output and efficiency, thus the capacity of that organization will be much higher. The more you can delegate decision making and responsibility, the more trust and loyalty your staff will have in you. The more effective will be the organization, and the more you will succeed as a manager.

Asses your situation in the organization. Appraise what elements of participatory management indicated here can be added to what you have, or what existing elements can be enhanced within the organization. Generate strategies for increasing participatory management.

Use these guidelines (do not blindly copy them) to create your own programme of increasing participatory management, a programme that is sensitive to conditions and lies within the parameters that delimit your action.


Staff Participation in Decision Making:

Community Executive Planning a Project

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.01.11

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