Given a choice between doing something and not doing something, people say they want to do the former but seem to end up doing the latter. Why is this? It’s the path of least resistance.
When you are trying to sort out this busy, confusing world we live in and just get through the day, of course it’s easier to sit back and let someone else worry about making the decisions. Frankly, it’s also easier for those in control to move forward with an agenda when participation is low.
So are incentives on both sides toward apathy instead of activity. This feels good in the moment, but can be very dangerous in the long term. The less of a stake someone feels in public or private matters, the easier it is for the people with the loudest voices to assert control and influence.
As an individual, you might think that your individual participation matters much one way or the other. But in fact, the opposite is true. Let’s run through two scenarios, one public and one private, where participation is essential.
A democracy is only as good as the people who comprise it. Without engagement, the processes of dialogue, deliberation and negotiation that can arrive at broadly supported outcomes can never occur – leading to the polarization and division that countries around the world are currently experiencing.
The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University studies these issues and summed up the case for participation quite nicely in a 2015 report titled “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders.”
“Voters choose our leaders (albeit in a system full of bias and distortions), so it is important that voters prefer deliberative representatives and reward constructive behavior in institutions like Congress. In turn, people learn those values by actually talking, listening, and working with fellow citizens who hold diverse objectives and ideals. If you have never had to facilitate a meeting on a contentious topic, you are unlikely to understand what constructive engagement looks like. And therefore, you are unlikely to choose constructive politicians to represent you.”
Any experience that people gain working through tough decisions and issues leads to a greater understanding of other points of view and the notion of compromise. What’s commonly referred to as the “other side” no longer seems so foreign.
The result is an electorate that makes more informed decisions at all levels of government, and a society that more closely reflects the values expressed by its participants, rather than one that reflects the vision of the elites who are already in power.
Beyond civic matters, participation is also critical in private life. Workplaces are in some ways mini-democracies that are only as strong as the employees who comprise them.
In order for a team to thrive, its members need to feel like they have a say in the decision-making process and that their concerns are being heard by their managers. If these conditions are not met, the result is dissatisfied employees who leave for other opportunities or don’t perform to their full potential on the job.
When employees are engaged, however, the exact opposite can occur, as Southwest airlines learned when it sought employee input on new uniforms. Here’s how the process played out, according to Entrepreneur:
The company allowed employees from any department to apply to collaborate on new uniform designs, with results really reflecting personality and company culture in a way that wouldn’t have been achieved had employees not been given a say. Employees were responsive to this, describing it as an “unforgettable experience.”
It would have been quicker and less expensive for Southwest’s management to decide on new uniforms in a vacuum without consulting employees. But because they put in the extra effort, they were rewarded with a workforce who felt proud to wear them and represent the company in public.
Why It Matters
These examples are supported by broader academic research showing that people who feel a sense of buy-in to a decision are more likely to accept its outcome. One group of researchers interviewed stakeholders from 24 international projects and came to the following conclusion:
“Through increased trust and ownership over problems and solutions, decisions taken in these processes are more likely to be accepted and implemented, helping to achieve environmental goals more effectively.”
It’s worth noting that this study focused specifically on environmental issues, but the broader point seems likely to hold across other areas. A sense of ownership breeds a sense of trust not only in the outcome, but in the decision-making process itself.
The only way to achieve that sense of buy-in is through increasing stakeholder participation in decision making. That is, of course, much easier said than done but a worthwhile investment of time and money given what we know about the outcomes.
How to Increase Participation
Sure, participation sounds great on paper, but how do you actually make it happen? Seeking input, whether on public or private matters, can be expensive and time consuming — both for the organization and for participants.
Ethelo removes some of those barriers to entry by using the power of technology to allow people to participate and engage with each other online, then uses an algorithm to identify the most broadly supported, viable outcomes based on the project’s constraints.
The process can work for a government organization or a private company. Either way, people involved in the engagement process will feel like their voices are being heard and will move closer to breaking down the barriers that divide us in our public and private lives.