This essay on employee participation and involvement was written in 1997. This means that despite our best intentions it may no longer be accurate. It is published for reference only.
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Employee Participation: Toward a Future Culture
During the last decade many organisations were attracted to various employee participation schemes as numerous commentators advocated their benefits. As a consequence employee participation, commitment and empowerment have all become familiar buzzwords of the 1990s. However, participative management schemes such as quality circles, team-working and total quality management do not always live up to the expectations of management and employee, and are strongly criticised by some commentators.
Table of Contents
By examining the main concepts of employee participation and some of the reasons why employers are adopting such schemes, it can be demonstrated that employee participation is a permanent phenomenon (Marchington et al., 1993), and that the criticisms, although often valid, only highlight the need for better organisational goals, and long and short-term business strategies.
The Benefits of Employee Participation
Although employee involvement (EI) is not a new management concept, it has only recently seen a revival in popular support along with the concomitant rise in human resource management (HRM). Since HRM seeks to regard the employee as an asset that can be invested in through further training and development, it is argued that involving them in decision-making can only enhance employee motivation, commitment and performance.
Moreover, Lawler (1986) points out that if people at all levels of an organisation manage their own work then they will find their jobs more rewarding. He continues to argue that this can result in ‘higher quality products’ and reduced labour costs since fewer employees are required. In fact Lawler is not alone with this point of view, Peters and Kanter also promote a similar message and support it with business ‘success stories’ (Peters and Waterman, 1982, Kanter, 1983 both quoted in Holden, 1994).
Consequently with the prospect of productivity gains, in increasingly competitive international markets, many organisations were keen to adopt participative management schemes during the early 1980s. Also, at the same time many courses on participative management appeared, providing low-cost, turnkey approaches for managers (Pringle, 1989 quoted in Nykodym, 1994; Lawler, 1985.)
However, in the United Kingdom this shift in management style, with a new emphasis on communications with direct involvement of employees, was also regarded as a response to the recession of the early 1980s, and the anti-unionist, political policies introduced by the new Conservative government headed by Mrs Thatcher (Marchington et al., 1992.) Furthermore, the UK had experienced increased competition from various countries, including France, Germany and Japan, which further exposed the weaknesses in British working practices, output and productivity (Holden, 1994: 562.)
Difficulties with Employee Participation
The first EI schemes to achieve widespread adoption in the UK, via the United States of America (USA) and Japan, were quality circles (QCs) and other upward problem solving forms. QCs aim to tap into employee knowledge and opinion through the mechanism of small groups, and are aimed at increasing employee motivation, morale, loyalty and commitment (Marchington et al., 1992; Holden, 1994:567). However, after an early interest in QCs by British managers popularity was on the decline by the mid-1980s.
It is interesting to contrast QCs in the USA and the UK with those of Japan, where circles were implanted during the post-war years by Demming and Duran. Japanese QCs, although very similar to QC programmes of the USA and UK, do exhibit a number of important differences. First and foremost, Japanese circles are controlled by management and regarded as a continuous management process. Second, they are embedded in the organisations culture and place a high emphasis on human relations (Nykodym et al., 1994.) Another interesting difference, although indicative of the cultural differences between countries, is that Japanese employees participating in circles meet in their own time rather than company time (Lawler & Mohrman, 1985.)
More recently team-working has become fashionable among some organisations, and like QCs has its origins in Japan. However, as with circles team-working has also suffered from the adaptation to our culture from the Japanese. In summary, team-working is where groups of between 7 and 10 employees are empowered to take care of a specific function, process or product line in an organisation so that it functions efficiently. Consequently there is an emphasis on problem solving in a team environment, and a large element of training necessary to ensure that team members, including supervisors and managers have the appropriate skills to function efficiently.On the other hand, as Lawler and Mohrman (1985) suggest, QC programmes from the USA (and consequently the UK) are parallel structures operating independently and in a different way from the existing organisation. Also, Nykodym et al. (1994), maintain that employees involved in circles are often confined to a specific task or project, and once this is completed, are no longer involved in participation. This view is supported by Lawler (1985) whose research shows that QCs go through a series of stages in their growth, with most organisations failing to sustain circle programmes over a long period. In fact British business interest in quality circles dropped from 65% in 1980 to only 10% in 1989 (Ramsey, 1992 quoted in Holden, 1994.)
The reasons for the failure of such programmes is, as Holden (1992) points out, principally down to the attitudes of middle managers. He suggests, by example, that managers and supervisors often do not have the right training and leadership qualities necessary to lead a circle, which ultimately leads to their failure. However, it can be argued that circles are inherently unstable organisational structures that are likely to self-destruct (Lawler & Mohrman, 1985) simply because they are not embedded in the organisation, and have no decision-making powers.
Team-working does, however, like other EI forms have its critics. For example Allender (1993) recognises that organisations have good intentions when they commence with EI programmes, but believes they are unlikely to succeed. He contributes this to a long overdue commitment to employee participation caused by an excessive emphasis on training, and a lack of results-centred actions. Allender has a good point; in Japan the work group is the basic building block of an organisation (Pascale & Athos, 1982), and EI schemes such as quality circles and team working are embedded in an organisations culture. However, in the USA and UK people tend not to interact as well in teams; commitment, trust, sharing and a sense of duty are not deep-rooted feelings among British and American employees. Thus, Allender argues organisations enter into excessive, unnecessary and costly training when they should be focusing bottom-line results. Nevertheless, Allender misses the point he is trying to make, and concludes that it is imperative to solve today’s problems before considering the future. However, significant culture change cannot occur unless long-term strategies are implemented.
Likewise, schemes such as total quality management (TQM) are reported to be unworkable in many organisations. Redman and Mathews (1995) suggest that the failure of TQM emphasises the neglect of the soft HRM practices (i.e. employee participation, team-working and organisational culture.) This they attribute, in part, to a preoccupation with production-orientated aspects of quality management, which is hardly surprising since many UK manufacturing organisations place TQM responsibilities firmly on their quality management function, whose priorities are nearly always product or systems centred.
What is clear from various areas of research is that most types of employee participation are, whether aimed at problem solving or empowering employees, more likely to fail unless there is a strong commitment by employers towards employee participation (Lawler & Mohrman, 1985; Marchington et al., 1993.) Also it is apparent that numerous influences have a bearing on the type and success of participation schemes used.
Marchington et al. (1993) portray an enduring picture of fads and fashions, stimulated in part by a regular turnover of managers who introduce their own version of employee participation. Also, from their research, they describe the succession of participative management schemes as ‘waves of employee involvement’. This concept is useful because it helps identify some of the reasons why EI schemes are introduced. For example government legislation and economic trends, both external factors to an organisation, frequently result in the institution of new schemes. Their studies also highlight the degree of centrality and prominence a scheme has within an organisation, which further highlights the need for implanting employee participation into long term business strategies.
Although there has been much controversy over the success of employee participation recently, this cannot deter from the fact that participation has had impressive results and is by no means unsuccessful (Poole, 1986:5.) Many proponents of EI, including Poole (1986), Lawler (1986) and Marchington et al. (1993) identify that employee attitudes towards participation is positive, and that they want employee participation schemes to continue.
These changing attitudes can be attributed to many factors, although much of this relates to changes in the workforce. Lawler (1986), although discussing the American worker, believes that people’s response to new management styles is characteristic of an increased level of education in society. This is also true of the UK where people are more educated than they were twenty years ago. Consequently people have greater expectations in employment, and a desire to be involved in decisions that effect their lives.
Of course there are other important factors that influence peoples attitudes, for example societal changes, such as legislation to protect employee rights, and the further democratisation of society. For instance unfair dismissal, equal pay, and race and sex discrimination are employment laws that provide a series of ‘protections’ for each employee (Brewster et al., 1992), and encourage organisations to deal with people fairly. Thus employees now expect work organisations to be democratic, participative and egalitarian, and to be treated in a way that is considered fair and reasonable (Lawler, 1986.)
On the other hand, middle management is often cited as having a lack of commitment toward employee participation (Marchington et al., 1993) which can be attributed, in part, to inadequate or inappropriate training, the loss of management prerogatives, and a contradiction in what executive and middle management want from EI (Holden, 1994.)
The criticism of managers’ lack of practical understanding is possibly exaggerated in the UK by the Anglo-American concept of management as a unified profession (Lane, 1989.) Other European countries, such as Germany, place a stronger emphasis on educational qualifications, with managers usually holding degrees in specialist fields, (e.g. engineering and commerce) and then taking on additional managerial responsibilities. In contrast, the British manager tends to have a professional qualification such as the ONC/ OND or HNC/ HND obtained through part-time study (Lane, 1989 quoting Nedo, 1987; Lee, 1981), although personal qualities and background rather than professionalism are often given disproportionate importance.
These differences in education are according to Nykodym et al. (1994) likely to become more important in the future as greater emphasis is placed on participative management. As organisational decisions become more complex managers will be required to integrate the knowledge of the specialist in different functional and technical areas. Thus, drawing from Lanes findings, it is conceivable that the weaknesses and differences in the way British managers are educated, compared with their European counterparts, may subsequently disadvantage British industry.
Nykodym et al. (1994) also stress that managing participation has many problems, and poses a number of dilemmas in organisations. For example, extending decision-making to the workforce for the purpose of harnessing experience and knowledge can, as referred earlier, undermine managerial prerogatives. Consequently managers’ are reluctant to relinquish decision-making powers to workers lower in an organisations hierarchy. Moreover recent research indicates that there is little evidence for these attitudes being dropped in favour of ‘more rational production methods’ (i.e. modern HRM organisational practices). Accordingly employee participation is often restrained, and inclined to embrace information dissemination and consultation with the workforce (Holden, 1994; Boreham, 1992 quoted in Holden, 1994.)
However, as Frost (1987) points out, people who receive authority do not necessarily wield power in a destructive manner, but rather use it in a way that is beneficial to an organisation. Thus, by treating empowerment as the use of power to create opportunities and conditions for employees so they can use and expand their abilities and skills, it is unlikely that management control would be lessened. In fact, this delegating of power ‘can actually increase the power of the delegating agency, so long as it can legitimate and retain its authority, and undermine it if the obedience of the delegated agents cannot be assured’ (Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992:106 quoted in Holden, 1994.)
In short, as Holden (1994) and Marchington et al. (1993) point out, there appears to be a discordance in what managers want from EI and what the workforce is entitled to in terms of empowerment and control. Also, it is evident that the degree of autonomy given to workers varies according to current socio-economic conditions (i.e. macro environment). For instance, during times of economic growth and prosperity organisations are more inclined to embark upon EI schemes in an attempt to bring about culture change. Conversely in times of recession employers often use employee participation to communicate the company point of view, and have sometimes used schemes for negative reasons (Guest and Peccei, 1992 quoted in Holden, 1994.)
Overall recent research on employee participation and involvement has not presented a particularly encouraging picture. However, such criticisms are principally directed at the implementation of EI, and not idea itself. Marchington et al. (1993) identify from their research four common problems with employee participation, which are cited as a lack of continuity caused by the dynamic career patterns of managers, a lack of middle management and supervisory support, an inappropriate choice of EI strategy, and finally workforce scepticism engendered in part by the preceding issues.
Nonetheless employee participation has at least a moderately positive affect on job satisfaction and productivity, with a number of studies suggesting that there is a relationship between employee participation and job motivation, commitment, and performance (Poole, 1986; Nykodyn et al., 1994; Miller and Monge, 1986; Smith and Brannick, 1990.) Thus, while problems exist with employee involvement, the ongoing trend is that of employers pursuing new ways in which to gain employee commitment and co-operation. Consequently employee participation, along with its dilemmas, is here to stay.
Insofar as the future is concerned, new EI schemes are likely to take the form of motivational levers bound up with HRM initiatives, culture change and customer service programmes. However, these ideas are not entirely new since total quality management also embraces a similar philosophy. The problems encountered with TQM are deep-rooted, as with all systems transferred from one culture to another, but on the other hand, are indicative of short-term organisational strategies. Wilkinson et al. (1992) highlight from their research a number of reasons why TQM has not lived up to the expectations of management and employee, and clearly attribute many of their faults to an emphasis on immediate gains rather than long-term cultural change. Hence successful EI schemes need to be embedded in an organisations culture and the process of change endemic to company philosophy.
Consequently if an organisation is committed to employee participation then, as Holden postulates (1994), a number of factors will need addressing for the proper implementation of EI systems
- a willingness by management to concede some of their prerogatives
- the necessity to train managers [and supervisors] in EI initiatives;
- to have a clear policy regarding the role and prerogatives of line managers in relation to senior management and the workforce under their supervision;
- the necessity to train workers in group working skills such as presentation, leadership, assertiveness, problem solving, etc.;
- the necessity of providing proper feedback mechanisms which clearly indicate the workforce is being listened to and not purely in a lip-service fashion;
- that action is being taken to implement group decisions – this reinforces the view amongst the workforce that their contributions are well received;
- that conflicting views have a place in developing initiatives.
Holden, 1994: 583
Finally, it is important to remember that there is considerable diversity in employee participation practices, and that they vary in detail, prominence and centrality (Marchington et al., 1993.) Subsequently a successful EI scheme in one organisation is not necessarily suitable for another. Also, as Lawler and Mohrman (1985) imply, last year’s vogue may prepare employees for the transformation toward culture change and an established employee involvement strategy.
Having considered a number of perspectives, it is clear that employee participation is central to the HRM debate and modern organisational practices. Moreover, the benefits of employee involvement and empowerment are, if participation is implemented effectively, wide ranging. However, it is apparent from several sources of research that considerable diversity exist in EI and that severe limitations are placed on it by management.
Although many of these shortcomings are influenced by factors external to an organisation (e.g. politics, economics, etc.), it is the perceived power challenge between management and the workforce that has prevented EI bringing about attitudinal and cultural changes in the workplace.
Nevertheless the positive aspects of employee participation are often recognised and accompanied by the frequent re-introduction of EI schemes, and consequently the amelioration of employee involvement strategies over a period of time. Hence, cultural change is occurring, albeit slower than it would if management pursued the proper implementation of EI through short-term and long-term business strategies.
A lot can change in 15 years and this essay does provide useful historic insight. Whist EI schemes have all but vanished management development has moved on. Indeed management development is commonplace and the old attitudes of middle managers are slowly but surely being eroded. Of course, some of the middle managers referred to in this essay now occupy senior and executive positions.
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