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Vertical To Horizontal: A New Workplace Reality

Written by Rune Kvist Olsen Saturday, 08 April 2006

The myth and reality of participation

The author George Benello8 states that workers are motivated to participate in the control of their workplace and will develop personal responsibility when the opportunities exist. Enhanced participation increases worker satisfaction and commitment to their work. He says: There is a circular reinforcing process so that as competence is increased, greater confidence develops. This leads to a greater willingness to exercise personal control, leading in turn to increased competence. Just as the inability to make decisions breeds lack of confidence, so the opportunity to participate increases confidence. The tokenism of sharing power and inviting employees to participate is creating a reluctance to join these participative processes. People are seeing through the delusion and deceit of participation while under the charge of others. In such token processes the superiors have often already made up their minds about the outcomes of the process. In thesecases the participation process is experienced as an insult and just another form of manipulation.

The difference between pretended participation and real participation is fundamental for motivating people to join up and get their full support and dedication in the process. When people experience pretended and token participation they will classify this type of method as coercive and compulsory, and the result can be a blocking and sabotage of organizational action. The real participation process is not about whether it goes downward or upward. It is just about voluntary joint efforts between equals on the same ground, sharing power to get the job done. Real participation will acquire mutual trust between people in their individual ability to take responsibility for their separate tasks and functions. Only through this type of participation will creativity flow as it unleashes individual capabilities, abilities, competences and the willpower to do one's best and to help each other to do everyone's best in getting the job done. When on the other hand the organization is preoccupied with getting the job done by motivating people to do the job better than others (and not helping each other), this attitude will destroy real participation and undermine personal responsibility and creativity. Conflict and hostility between people in the workplace have always had something to do with a competitive attitude, while cooperation and mutual support are on the other hand linked to equal control, mutual trust and sharing of power.

Due to the vertical and hierarchical structure in organizations, people tend to feel the ascending vertical order as something natural and normal - as the assumed and presumed way to get things done in an efficient way. This is only because the practise has always been in that way. Therefore organizations experience inefficiency and deterioration when people resent and resist participation, but still put the blame for disappointing results on people's behaviour and not the organization's own attitudes, values, systems and practises. The organizational problem and paradox will inevitably strengthen organizational behaviour around one version or standard as a cause of the deteriorated results, which in the next round will demand further effective control through conformity and subservience for those involved. Organizational features and patterns are therefore frozen into ingrained organizational structures and fixed procedures. This freezing of processes into rigidity and conformity, contributes further to enslavement of people as objects. And finally the organization stands as a monument of obedience and coercive loyalty where the dominant measure is the ability to obey the masters through rules and regulations. Then the so-called participation process is transformed into a conservative institution where people are included as objects, and not as subjects and human beings.

The author Joyce Rothschild9 stated in relation to participatory habits in organizations: Where people do not have participatory habits, it is because they have not generally been allowed any substantial control over important decisions.The power-holders dread the loss of control over others and therefore they are devising numerous excuses for refusing the distributing and sharing of power. That is the background for the managerial tools with the purpose to get control and maintaining the power-base in favour of the people in charge. The main excuse for implementing control devices is that the common human beings can behave stupid and lazy and lack a sense of cooperation. Furthermore people are unable to take responsibility for their own actions. The managerial systems of control are therefore in place to supply and provide for the unforeseen and unpredictable consequences of the actions of the common people.

The lack of real participation in the workplace leads to a lack of implementation of decisions, because the people that are needed for the implementation of decisions do not feel themselves a part of the decision making process. Therefore they will be reluctant to take part in the implementation of decisions in practise. When pretended participation is put into action, people will feel that they inevitably are forced and coerced to participate and will do so in a contradicting and resisting way. As Kipnis2 says: The use of even moderate power in persuading the employees to join a decision process, stimulates opposition. The use of coercion inevitably generates resistance in those being forced when they are obliged to commit themselves to a type of coerced persuasion. The demand for submissive loyalty is naturally a part of the effort to control people and have them nicely adapted into the fold of the hierarchical order without any protesting and demonstrations at all.

Snyder and Fromkin10 state that most contemporary organizations tend to an operating practice in which they destroy the uniqueness of people. They say: On entering organizations people are shaped into an object that fits the institution, to assist in the smooth running of routine operations. This process leads to the loss of the unique self. Employees are forced to fit their behaviour to match some standardized general profile. This is achieved through conformity to rules. Any deviation from the organizational standard of behaviour is dealt with by disciplinary action in ways that reinforce and strengthen conformity performance and behaviour. With the loss of individual uniqueness, there is a loss of creativity which is the price organizations are willing to pay for conformity to rules and regulations. The standard argument for conformity-practise is that the average person is somewhat irrational and unpredictable, and therefore must be controlled and coerced in order to do something useful and productive. This coercive practise reveals a belief that the human being cannot be trusted to freedom and responsibility before the human being has proven itself to be trustworthy. This practise is an elegant way to establish the rule as a burden of proof in a form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore the human being must be commanded and controlled until this belief is proven wrong.

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