Employee Participation, Responsibility, and Use of Authority

“Participation is the key to harmony.” This phrase is true of any effective organization. To be effective, employees need to actively participate in their organizations and support participation as a central value of the workplace. Individuals need to accept they are responsible for speaking up and participating in the events that occur in their organizations. This means describing their perceptions to those they work with. If employees choose to not to speak up, they become victims to the system. This does not lead to harmony or cohesiveness. All employees have more power and authority then they may recognize. Every employee does work that contributes to the system being successful. An employee who does not speak up and victimizes themselves becomes a “weak link.” Weak links clog up the system. This wastes time and energy.

Each employee needs to find the courage to speak up when needed, the maturity to keep silent when being confronted, and the ability to truly listen to the other person’s point of view. There is an exception to listening to another’s point of view: when that point of view is expressed in a destructive and attacking manner rather than constructively. If this occurs, then the employee needs to speak up and ask for the statements to be made in a different way or terminate the interaction.

Speaking up is a way to take responsibility for the self, and the way the employee thinks and feels about self affirms that the individual is responsible for her or his own life. “I can’t expect others to do for me what I can do for myself, nor do I assume responsibility for others.”

Being responsible for oneself is a form of self-management. It also requires self-management to demonstrate through one’s actions the values of the organization. “It does not matter what others do; it matters what I do.” Living the values of an organization is essential when organizations have values as a part of their strategic plan. The highest performers are the ones who exhibit values that support ethical leadership and a culturally diverse organization. How one self manages determines one’s success in the system.

In addition to taking responsibility for the self, employees need to take responsibility for participation in the team process. Doing so is essential to having effective teams in the system. This may require defining jobs through job descriptions and experiences to help clarify boundaries between individuals and the team. It is the responsibility of the employee to bring up the issues of unclear boundaries so they can be clarified.

Where the concept of participation exists in the organization, amazingly a group of diverse people can gather together, share their thoughts and feelings, have different perceptions and opinions, and reason things out for the common good.

There are two sides to participation – giving of ourselves and including others. If we give of ourselves, our opinions and our time, we become participants. Full participation leads to harmony, since there is less opposition and alienation when all of us have a chance to contribute our voice and our votes.

When employees participate and ask to participate, they are nurtured by the system. All people have a desire to belong and be heard. When employees think they belong, the organization has created a system of “caring equals.” A simple concept of participation and contribution is the willingness to commit to doing tasks and the job.

With responsibility for themselves and for their participation in the team process, employees must also be given the authority to make autonomous decisions appropriate to their roles in the organization. Without this authority employees cannot meet their responsibilities. The right of decision belongs to the trusted employee at every level of the organization — staff, executives, teams, etc. If we accept that all employees have the right to make decisions within the scope of their particular jobs, they become trusted partners not messengers. Organizations need to trust people to do what they are to do.

The right of decision means the employee has the right to proceed in the best way s/he knows and to ask for help when it is needed. When authority or a decision needs to be delegated, the employee and the manager need to participate in defining the general guidelines for the project or job. After this is done, the person doing the work needs to be able to decide on the details. The employee’s trust in self and the manager’s letting go of the details lead to trust and confidence in the employee. This supports the employee’s competence, authority and dignity. When managers ask themselves the following question, it is doubtful they will over-manage or allow over-management: “Would I like someone supervising me all the time while I am attempting to do the job?” The answer is usually no.

Delegating to meet the challenges of the work is part of any job and can make the work exciting. Unless managers and employees support these ideas, they will have rules and guide books that are outrageous and that prevent effective work from being done. Letting go and trusting is effective leadership. An employee who asks for trust and demonstrates she or he can do the work is a leader.

Delegation is an important tool for supporting the employee’s independence. Delegation also supports people learning to rely on each other. Often delegation comes from the top. All employees can serve at some point as a head of a committee or project. In these cases, they may apply the principles of delegation. Once delegation has occurred, it is important to remember that the employee to whom the work has been delegated is now responsible. When all employees have the right to participate and have the permission to do so, trust develops in the system. How positively an employee accepts delegation assists a manager in deciding how effective an employee is. It is the employee’s choice how they receive delegation from management.

Employees must also stay informed so they can make good decisions. If employees are not receiving the information they need, it is their responsibility to ask for the information they need to do their job effectively. Some information about the organization may not be needed to do an effective job. In these instances, it is the employee’s responsibility to let go of the need to have the information and move on.

Employees need to ask for or clarify their decision-making power when it is being stifled. If an employee participates and has a voice in a team process, they know they are part of the team and the decision. When an employee contributes, they know they have been included, heard and valued. “Participation makes us a part of the group rather than apart from it. The harmony created by our active, willing participation encourages others to participate.”

Creating an environment where employees participate fully and are given the authority needed to fulfill their duties is based on trusting in the integrity of others. When we trust in the integrity of others, we learn to develop guidelines, offer our best ideas for consideration, and trust each other to do the best we can. With dignity and confidence, we are more likely to rise to the occasion, be willing to lead, and create workable solutions together for whatever task is at hand. An employee who exhibits this kind of attitude and behavior will be successful.

Along with integrity, employees need to have respect for self and others. This is not forced respect similar to what we might give to an authority figure. We need to respect each other (as well as authority figures) as we ourselves want to be respected — as equals and partners in our endeavors.

When organizations support participation, responsibility, delegation, integrity, and respect, the organization fosters an environment where each person acts honorably and ethically in all their activities. This means employees will do the right thing even though no one is looking. Such organizations can be described as being democratic in thought and action.

Effective and democratic systems encourage employees to support one another when such an arrangement fosters a constructive relationship. Employees may ask the manager or take it upon themselves to serve as a supporter to another employee. This will increase the learning and growth of both individuals. Both have to agree this would be a helpful endeavor. This kind of arrangement sometimes has to be approved by a manager in some systems.

To further the development of organizations to become democratic in thought and action, it is important to challenge the leaders of the organizations to rethink the way their organization is structured. What if organizations could look at the structure of their organization as an upside down triangle with the individual employees, who make up the teams, at the top? Leaders would then be held accountable to their teams/individual employees. Delegated authority and responsibility could then be used to the greatest extent. How would the organization function? The answer is amazingly well.

One way of describing such an organization is to use the analogy of an orchestra. “There is a conductor whom we willingly follow in order to coordinate our music. Each of us has different instruments and play a different set of notes. All employees know that in order to make music (no matter what kind), rather than noise, following the conductor is necessary.” Each member is essential to the orchestra, and depending on the situation and the work being done, each member of the orchestra can act as the conductor.

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner describe a model for leadership in their book, The Leadership Challenge, that directly supports these ideas about authority, responsibility, participation, and accountability. They describe five practices needed for exemplary leadership:

  1. Model the way
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act
  5. Encourage the heart

These five practices are another way of describing what has been detailed in this document. Employees and managers of an organization can lead from their particular jobs, when they apply the principles described herein.

With all that has been said so far about participation, authority, responsibility, and accountability, there is another key element to a truly effective organization: creativity. Policies, procedures, job descriptions and etc. cannot cover all the things that come up in a day. Employees need the freedom and authority to use their creativity to respond to the unpredictable. Creativity leads to valuable decision-making that has a positive impact on the organization. Creativity helps to change circumstances. Whether a manager supports a particular idea or approach or not, employees can apply their ideas as they do their job. Seldom will a manager fail to support an employee that impacts the organization in a positive way.