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The importance of sharing knowledge for participatory leadership

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

The virtue of sharing knowledge is something I’ve touched upon many times over the years. Most of these discussions have revolved around innovation, but sharing can also have an impact on leadership.

In complex environments it is increasingly accepted that employees need to take on responsibility for delivery and even strategy. Leaders might determine what is required, but staff are encouraged to determine how that is achieved themselves based upon their own assessment of the environment.

Participatory leadership

A recent study1 highlights how this more participatory approach to leadership can be encouraged, with knowledge sharing fundamental to your attempts.

The paper reveals that employee performance grows considerably when managers share and discuss the crucial information they have when making decisions and forming judgements.

This is because when we suspect our leaders aren’t being transparent with information, we interpret their attempts at collaboration as simply increasing our workload with little upside for us.

Their recommendation therefore is to go the whole hog and not embark in participatory leadership in a half-hearted way. Doing this is immediately spotted by employees and buy-in then becomes very hard to achieve.

With innovation increasingly open in our organizations, eliciting input from employees is growing in importance and frequency, so this provides a telling insight into how this can be achieved.

Why we might hoard information

Of course, this doesn’t always happen, and a recent study2 found that we’re often too self-interested to share information with our peers.

The paper reveals that teams are often not playing particularly well with each other, with employees typically withholding information if they felt it would harm their own prospects. This was especially so when it came to determining how much funding was received for particular teams, projects or departments.

“Most organisations must make decisions about where best to allocate resources,” the authors say.“Pharmaceutical companies as a whole need to regularly reassess their research and development portfolios and decide which projects have the greatest potential; for example they might choose to improve an existing drug or develop a new one. Such decisions are often made by executives who rely on information provided by the project managers. But individual project managers do not necessarily give accurate information to the boss if they think it will cost them the resources that fund their projects.”

The paper found that our likelihood to share information depended on the fit between the type of project and the incentives in place.

For instance, in small companies, there’s more of a collective responsibility, so rewards work best when they focus on this collective element of success.

As companies grow however, there is more of a singular approach to responsibility, with outcomes becoming less risky. In such a scenario, people tend to follow their individual agenda, with individual performances rewarded by management.

All of which is food for thought if we want our teams to be participating widely in the leadership of our organizations.

Article source: The importance of sharing knowledge for participatory leadership.


  1. Lam, C. K., Huang, X., & Chan, S. C. (2015). The threshold effect of participative leadership and the role of leader information sharing. Academy of Management Journal58(3), 836-855.
  2. Schlapp, J., Oraiopoulos, N., & Mak, V. (2015). Resource allocation decisions under imperfect evaluation and organizational dynamics. Management Science, 61(9), 2139-2159.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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