Leadership and Participation

While The Principle Of Delegation Is Clear, The Means Of Carrying It Out Are Often Not.

Thomas J. Roach

Most managers understand that a work environment of participative decision-making is preferable to one where only supervisors make decisions and subordinates unquestioningly carry them out. However, while the principle of delegation is clear, the means of carrying it out are often not, and some managers delegate too much authority to subordinates, while others not enough.

Managers and subordinates have distinctly different knowledge and skill sets. The manager should have a broad view of work objectives. The higher managers are on the corporate ladder, the closer they are to the CEO and those who lead the organization. Therefore, they are better informed than their subordinates about long range goals and systemic problems and opportunities.

Different World 
Subordinates live in a different world. Regardless of their level in the organization, the activities of the workgroup always place them closer to the customer than their manager is, and the workgroup has a more intimate understanding of the hands-on, day-to-day process of carrying out directives. Whether the workgroup’s customers are internal or external, customer feedback and their own experience make them the experts on how corporate initiatives fit into real world situations. 

In an ideal work environment, senior leadership sets broad objectives which are refined and implemented by middle and line management who involve their subordinates in their decision-making. This is the best-case scenario because senior management sees the whole playing field of customers, competitors, technological innovations, and economic trends. 

They are most able to set objectives that anticipate changes in the corporate environment. As their broad directives move down the organization chart, managers and experts at each level interpret these directives and modify them according to their unique view of the process. If this is done with the right balance of freedom and restraint, even the lowest level workgroup will be able to bring its own experience and expertise to bear on the final stage of implementation.

Additionally, if workgroups discover that directives from upper management are problematic, they should be able to pass feedback up through the hierarchy of management all the way to the top of the organization and cause leadership to reconsider its course. This is what a business system should look like if it is driven by the profit motive and in an environment of good will. 

Different Categories
Most managers fall into one of three categories. Some reject the participative philosophy altogether, and believing that they know everything, force detailed directives down through the organization and punish anyone who disagrees with them. This is the Theory X model, and it is responsible for some of the most regrettable decisions in the history of business and warfare. 

Another category is managers who want to foster participative decision-making, but don’t know how. They usually make one of two mistakes. 

  • The most common mistake is asking for participation and feedback and then ignoring it. This is a result of the manager underreacting to the principle of delegation. The manager who underreacts fails to take advantage of the insights of the people who are expert in implementation and, worse yet, alienates the subordinates who took the time to offer their input but were ignored. 
  • The other mistake is made by managers who delegate the highest level of planning to the workgroup. Managers have a responsibility to provide direction and to place their subordinates in situations where they can be most productive. Managers who overreact to the principle of delegation fail in both responsibilities. 

The last category is managers who study the situation, identify the highest level of objectives, select and empower the subordinates most qualified to carry out the project, and provide them with resources. 

In the end, providing not enough direction is as bad as providing too much direction. Leadership is more about how we communicate than what we communicate. The most effective leaders create processes that tap into the best ideas in their organization and that includes contributions from their subordinates and from themselves. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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