Missing Voices

Companies that quiet employee opinions alienate workers and miss out on big ideas

Sept. 7, 2009

There’s a scene in an episode of the television series “The Office” in which the incompetent boss Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) tries to impress his supervisor by sharing employee ideas from a suggestion box, which he claims to sort through regularly. The first item he reads aloud: “What should we do to prepare for Y2K?” The year being 2005, it’s clear Michael has utterly ignored the suggestion box.

Ethan Burris
Assistant Professor of Management Ethan Burris studies how companies solicit employee feedback, and he says it’s a sore subject for most workers.

To be sure, Michael Scott is a caricature of the bad boss archetype–a fumbling goof ignoring helpful staff ideas in favor of jokes and flattery. But the scene also falls into the funny-because-it’s-true category and likely strikes a chord with anyone who has felt ignored at work.

And odds are, that’s you.

Assistant Professor of Management Ethan Burris studies how companies solicit employee feedback, and he says it’s a sore subject for most workers.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to has felt some level of discomfort in speaking the truth to power,” Burris says.

He notes a study by management researchers Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich that showed 70 percent of 260 people from a variety of industries and job types hesitated to speak up about problems at work or suggest possible improvements to their firm because they feared repercussions. A similar study by Burris’ research partner, Cornell Management Professor James Detert, found only 51 percent of employees in a Fortune 100 multinational company said they felt safe speaking up most of the time.

So why aren’t employees speaking up? And when they do, what are they saying, and to whom? And what’s the danger to the company when it’s not listening to employee voices?

Burris sought to answer these questions in an ongoing study in which he and his colleagues are surveying more than 3,000 employees at 11 different credit unions around the country about their experience in speaking up at work.

He says the implications go beyond employee egos or morale.

“This is a huge problem, and it’s not just because employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up,” he says. “There’s lots of research that shows when employees don’t feel involved in the workplace, they tend to withdraw. They don’t engage in all the extra activities that aren’t required for the job, such as helping a coworker, staying late or taking on extra responsibilities. It’s not the formal, required part of the job, but it’s certainly necessary for the organization to succeed.”

Map of every employee in an organization
In his ongoing study examining employee voice in credit unions, Burris maps every employee in each organization. Each dot represents a person, and a line indicates that an employee spoke up with a new idea to another employee. Orange dots are lower level employees, turquoise dots are branch and department managers, and red dots are the top management team.

Burris has seen firsthand the psychological toll on a worker whose boss is not open to new ideas.

“My wife had a boss who was controlling and defensive and did not want to hear her ideas for improving the department,” he says. “She was willing to take a significant pay cut just to work for someone else who did value her ideas.”

His wife’s experience is part of what led him to study voice, as did an interest in politics.

“To me, the idea of politics is the idea that decisions are not made based solely on merit,” he says. “People have ideas, and the merit of the ideas should be weighed against each other to make a final decision. But that’s often not what actually happens. There are other factors–and voice is a great example–that prevent a meritorious decision-making process from occurring.”

Risks of Speaking Up–Is the Door Really Open?

Examining the flow of employee voice within a company feels a bit like going back to high school, at least psychologically. While high school students fall into cliques based on a club or shared interest–the cheerleaders, band kids or honor students, for instance–employees tend to form cliques based on their department or job function–the accounting office, the bank tellers or administrative assistants. And their opinions, complaints and ideas for improvements tend to be heard only by others in the clique.

Burris hopes that by examining these social networks, he can help companies determine which managers employees are sharing their ideas with, who is disconnected from their department, and where bottlenecks and communication breakdowns are occurring.

Map showing branch manager on the periphery of the employee network
Here the branch manager (turquoise dot) is on the periphery of the network and is probably out of the loop from hearing about problems and new ideas. “If you rely on current research’s suggestions for how to improve upward communication, it heavily relies on the chain of command,” Burris says. “But this breaks down if a manager is disconnected or there are bottlenecks in the larger network. These maps help identify bottlenecks and missing connections.”

“If managers are central in the communication networks of their work unit, they stand a good chance of hearing about problems and opportunities for improvement,” Burris says. “But if they aren’t central, it may indicate that they are out of the loop. At best, they are dependent on other employees to hear about what’s going on in their department. At worst, it means important information is not reaching the key decision-makers of the organization.”

Many employees say they don’t speak up to their boss because of fear of repercussions. But are workers just being paranoid? Burris’ research says no.

In a working paper titled “The risks and rewards of speaking up: Responses to employee voice,” Burris conducted three experiments and one field study to examine how people view dissenting opinion from employees.

“I found that employees who speak up and challenge the status quo are viewed as less competent, less dedicated to the organization and more threatening compared to those who support the way things are,” Burris says. “They are also rated as worse performers, and their ideas get less support.”

Mary Gray is the assistant vice president of human resources for Austin-based A+ Federal Credit Union, and she is all too familiar with employees’ reluctance to voice their opinions to management. It’s why the company agreed to participate in Burris’ study surveying credit union employees.

“Years ago, an employee of mine aired a complaint to me on her last day of work because that was the only time she felt safe to talk about it,” Gray says. “I was really disappointed by that, but I understand. I know when I was younger I thought nobody would care about what I thought, so I’d just talk to my buddies.”

Gray says the credit union initially hesitated to participate in the survey.

“It can be scary to open up the lines of communication, because you don’t know what’s going to come out of it,” she says. But the credit union decided it was an opportunity to learn about the company and its employees, and that it would ultimately make A+ a better organization, for both employees and its members.

The survey asked employees how often they provide suggestions for improvement to supervisors, and how often managers ask for and follow up on staff concerns. It also asked employees to rate their interaction with every other person in the company, including if they felt safe sharing problems and new ideas or asking for advice.

Gray says the survey results revealed that staff and management were not on the same page about some key topics.
“We were surprised by the perception that employees couldn’t go up the chain with problems, that they could only go laterally,” Gray says. “There was also a misconception about what benefits we have to offer, even though we feel we communicate that in so many ways.”

Burris says it’s not uncommon for there to be a disconnect between how managers and their staff judge a company’s willingness to listen to employees.

“A lot of managers think that if they treat their staff respectfully and tell them ‘My door is always open,’ that should be enough to make their employees trust them,” Burris says. “But our research shows that employees need more than that in order to feel safe to speak up.”

If managers want employees to speak up, Burris says, they must explicitly ask for employee feedback and create formal, transparent follow-up mechanisms that encourage an ongoing dialogue.

In a conference Burris hosted last fall for managers from the credit unions that participated in his survey, one of the sessions focused on how to actively seek out employee voice. One organization offers employees a lunch with the president, on the condition that each employee provides one idea on how to improve the company. Other managers said they regularly get their staff outside of the office.

“There’s something about leaving your day-to-day setting that seems to lessen status differences, and that makes people more comfortable,” Burris notes.

More Than Just Whining

Gray and her colleagues at A+ Federal Credit Union came away from the conference realizing their employees might benefit from having access to tools specifically designated for offering feedback. They recently implemented a “Speak Up” program, created by employees, to solicit ideas from staff on how to improve the company. A committee of mid-level managers analyzes the feasibility of each proposal, and employees earn extra money for any idea that gets implemented. They’ve also created a company intranet that includes a blogging tool and encourage staff to use it as a platform for sharing ideas.

Within the first month of introducing Speak Up, employees had already submitted 11 suggestions to improve the credit union.

Plenty of big brands are clueing in to the fact that not listening to employees can lead to disgruntled staff–but it also might mean missing out on the next great business innovation.

Google is known for its “20 percent time,” which lets staffers use one day a week to work on a project of their choice. They may work on something entirely new or perhaps improve an existing Google feature. The ideas staffers developed using 20 percent time have led to the creation of some of Google’s most popular features, including Gmail and Google News.

Dell has an entire system of employee feedback tools, including nine internal blogs, an annual “Tell Dell” anonymous feedback survey and its EmployeeStorm Web portal, where employees can submit, comment and vote on ideas, from health benefits to product improvements.

Texas Evening MBA student Christa Semko is an internal digital media strategist for Dell and oversees EmployeeStorm and one of the blogs. She says employees value the opportunity for ongoing two-way communication with executives and each other.

“When we first launched the internal blogs, we only had a few comments a week, but now we get 40 to 50 a day,” Semko says. “People have told me these kinds of tools are what make them excited to work at Dell.”

Dilbert cartoon strip
Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss demonstrates how not to ask for employee feedback.

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Dell staff members have submitted more than 4,800 ideas to EmployeeStorm and Dell has implemented about 150 of them, including adding a backlit keyboard to its Latitude E-Series of notebook computers, and creating a special line of charity-affiliated laptops that benefit causes such as breast cancer research.

Burris says that clear progression from idea to implementation must happen at some point if managers want employees to keep speaking up.

“Formal, transparent follow-up is very important,” Burris says. “It’s counter-productive to ask an employee for feedback if you never do anything with that information. If staff see their ideas just disappear, they’ll stop offering them altogether.”

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Banner photo: Christina Murrey