Dangers lurk if suggestions are sought but are not considered. (An excerpt from an article published in Journal of Business Ethics).
When faced with important decisions, managers can choose to rule in an autocratic (making unilateral choices) or democratic (inviting employees to have a say) way. Managers are often encouraged to take the democratic approach (generally called participative management) because research has shown that motivation, job performance, and morale increase when employees have the opportunity to contribute their concerns and ideas.
But this study finds that there’s a consequence to giving employees a voice: A company then has to listen. If employees conclude that a manager is just trying to win points by paying lip service to consulting them — and has no intention of acting on their advice — they are likely to stop offering input and, worse, act out their frustration by clashing with their colleagues.
The researchers refer to the illusion of having participative influence as “pseudo voice.” It comes into play whenever a manager ignores ideas slipped into suggestion boxes, concerns voiced in meetings, and complaints registered in employee surveys. And it is common even at companies that say they are committed to giving employees a chance to contribute their ideas. In that setting, according to the authors of this paper, some managers feel constrained to ask for their employees’ views even though they have no intention of following through on anything they hear.
The researchers found that employees who suspected that their managers only feigned interest in their ideas became more reluctant to offer input.
In turn, when employees voiced their opinions less often, their conflicts with colleagues increased. The conflicts took a variety of forms, including bossing someone around, refusing to participate fully in meetings, and starting arguments. The researchers posit that disgruntled employees took out their frustrations on co-workers because they feared losing their jobs or experiencing other reprisals if they challenged their managers.
Conversely, employees who thought their manager was indeed paying attention spoke up more often and got along better with one another, improving the organization’s functioning as a whole.
With so much to be gained, some managers may be tempted to play the voice card cynically, capitalizing on the initial trust that employees typically exhibit. “If a manager succeeds in offering employees an illusion of influence without being noticed, the organization benefits from the positive effects of voice opportunity,” the authors write.
But such bogus efforts will most likely backfire on the manager, the authors warn. “It is likely that their employees will soon notice that their input is not regarded, and the accompanying negative feelings will undo the positive effects of voice opportunity,” they write. “As a result, employees are more likely to suspect pseudo voice in future situations,” and wind up convinced that their opinions are being ignored even when they are not.
To avoid this outcome, it is not enough for managers to solicit opinions only when they intend to listen — they also have to provide feedback that includes tangible evidence that they followed up and did something.
Giving employees the opportunity to voice their opinions can be a positive force for change. But don’t put out a suggestion box if you aren’t willing to implement at least some of the suggestions.
Authors: Gerdien de Vries (LeidenUniversity), Karen A. Jehn (MelbourneUniversity), and Bart W. Terwel (LeidenUniversity)
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