leadershipYour Guide to Participatory Leadership for Better Engagement

If you are struggling to find ways to motivate volunteers, or don’t seem to have enough “leader” volunteers available, consider renovating how you make decisions.  Try leading from within, rather than from the top, by using a participatory leadership model

While a traditional, hierarchical style of management (sometimes called “command-and-control”) works for some situations (e.g., emergency response efforts) and is required in some contexts (e.g., historically bureaucratic institutions), it is rarely helpful in inspiring and motivating volunteers. Volunteers want to participate and have a say in what they accomplish and how they go about it.

An alternative model is that of participatory leadership and decision-making. While the traditional leadership model is a triangle with a charismatic leader at the apex, a more innovative, and perhaps more effective, leadership model for the knowledge economy involves a network of people around a circle who filter information from the perimeter and feed it into the middle of the organization
for action. 

A participatory leadership model assumes that the group has greater wisdom than individuals and accepts that, while this approach may take longer upfront, it will save time in the long run by increasing morale and productivity and decreasing resistance to change.

By building a shared framework of understanding, creating a safe environment for diverse views to be shared, seeking new and untested alternatives and a focus on finding win-win solutions to all problems, teams experience an environment that is both challenging and inspiring. 

Traditional Versus Participatory Leadership: What’s the Difference?

Traditional Participatory
Top Down Bottom-Up
Either/Or Both/And
Win-Lose Win-Win
Org Chart
Determines Work
Purpose-Oriented Work Teams
Chain of
Community of Practice
Responsible for Decisions
Collective Decisions
Agenda Setting
Group Agenda Setting
by Reward/Consequences
Motivation by Ownership
One Meeting
Multiple Voices/Leaders
Assigned to Position
Team Members Follow Passions
Participation in Discussions
Full Participation in Discussions
is Valued
Full Participation is Valued

Collaborative Work Spaces
Shared leadership also works better if the workspace reflects a collaborative model. Although staff may not have complete control over their work environment, they can lead the way in making small changes that support team cohesion. Here are a few:

  • Find Ways to Encourage Play — If teams are relaxed, they are more likely to work together. Celebrate small victories, play music, post funny photos, make common areas comfortable, give goofy prizes or tailor something that works at your organization.
  • Create Designated “We” Space — Get rid of the corner office and create a shared space where work can be accomplished communally. Be sure to also have “quiet space” for sensitive conversations and where team members can go to concentrate without distraction. (At the same, time, make sure that confidential documents are kept in locked cabinets and that volunteers have secure, personal storage space while they are on site.)
  • Visualize Your Projects — Use whiteboards, walls and flip charts to create shared graphical depictions of your group’s process and decisions. Keep them up during the life of the project to remind the team where you’re headed and how far you’ve come.
  • Be Flexible — Not all work has to happen in an office. Encourage volunteers and staff to work remotely and use technology to stay in touch and communicate as the need arises.