What is Participation?

I just used a quote in response to David Gammel’s comment to my last post, but as I look at it, I think it is good enough to get its own post. It is from Ed Schein, who is a great scholar and practitioner in the organization development field, known particularly for his expertise on culture (see a book review here). He has an article in the OD Practitioner Journal that talks about the concept of “participation” in organizations. Here’s the quote (and “it” in the opening sentence refers to “participation”):

For many managers, it means to give away some of their power to their employees, only to discover that the employees then actually want to exercise power, something that the manager had not actually bargained for or anticipated. For other managers it means telling employees what is going on, asking if there are any questions, and if none arise in 5 seconds, assuming they have now provided their employees a chance to participate.

I think what he’s getting at is that paying lip service to participation is easier than actually doing it. This fits with Schein’s view that you can’t actually do “culture change” in organizations. That is, you can’t design a program, implement it, and expect the culture to be changed. It happens gradually, as a learning process. He ultimately is criticizing the high-level calls for more “participation” in organizations that he sees. That’s getting at issues of culture, which are harder to deal with.