The power of suggestion
About the author
Nicole Bearne (MSc MCIPR MABP) is a business psychologist and internal communication specialist with many years’ experience of working with high-performance teams in Formula One motor racing.
Guest author Nicole Bearne explores how suggestion schemes might still provide an effective channel for employee voice.
Recent decades have seen a growing interest in employee voice in both academic research and the workplace. Employers increasingly recognise that the extent to which employees volunteer suggestions or solutions to problems can have a significant impact on company performance. Encouraging employees to voice their ideas has long been considered a route to high-quality decision-making and organisational effectiveness.
As Elizabeth Morrison, Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University, notes:
The extent to which employees communicate upward with suggestions, ideas, information about problems, or issues of concern can have tremendous implications for an organization’s performance and even its survival.
However, many major organisational failures and catastrophes have been attributed to the inability or unwillingness of employees to raise concerns or challenge management practices.
The crash of United Airlines Flight 173 serves as one example. In 1978 the McDonnel-Douglas DC-8 aircraft disastrously ran out of fuel while holding near Portland, Oregon, as the crew tried to troubleshoot a problem with the landing gear. In the ensuing investigation, the US National Transportation Safety Board found that flight crew members failed to successfully communicate their concerns over fuel levels to the captain.
This highlights the value to organisations of empowering employees to challenge upwards. When opportunities for voice are present, studies show that employees have increased loyalty and commitment, higher performance and lower absenteeism, higher engagement, are more satisfied with their organisation and engage more in positive proactive behaviour. It is seen as a precursor to innovation and can challenge the status quo.
Voice has been found to support effective organisational decision-making processes and improve the possibility of error detection. When voice is perceived to be ‘heard’, employees are likely to feel increased satisfaction and motivation in their work. It also confirms their position as a valued member of the group.
Conversely, the absence of voice or failure to listen can have a significant detrimental effect. A study by Hunton in 1996 found that when employee voice was ignored within one organisation, a 41% decrease in output resulted.
Thus the research seemingly points to a high upside to implementing participatory employee voice schemes within organisations. The idea is that having formal channels in place for capturing employee voice gives employees a clear signal that their suggestions are welcomed and will be considered.
Many organisations therefore create formal processes to encourage employees to voice their concerns, ideas or suggestions. The suggestion scheme is one of the oldest employee participation tools and has involved a variety of mechanisms from locked suggestion boxes, Kaizen-style noticeboards or, increasingly, computer-based programs and internal social networking platforms.
But maintaining suggestion schemes has proved challenging and they frequently fail, despite the best intentions of managers.
In the field of organisational psychology, the concept of Procedural Justice is concerned with the perceived fairness of organisational decision-making, and employee voice has been found to be strongly linked to this.
When individuals have the opportunity to express their opinion within a decision-making process, they consider the outcome to be fairer. Having the opportunity to voice can create commitment to a decision, even if the decision doesn’t go in the employee’s favour.
However, a system that appears on the surface to offer a degree of involvement for the employee, but in reality doesn’t provide any real input into the actual decision-making process, can give rise to the ‘frustration effect’. People can’t see how the decision has been reached, don’t feel that they’ve been involved in the conversation and consequently disengage.
A Black Box
Recent research has proposed that employees who voice their suggestions feel a strong sense of ownership of their ideas. They see the suggestion scheme as an opportunity to share their ideas with management and the wider organisation.
However, a general feature of suggestion schemes is that ultimately the evaluation of the suggestions doesn’t lie with those who submit them, but instead with an unrelated manager or committee. Employees are generally not consulted in the selection of which ideas will be implemented and which not, and they have little visibility of that process.
This has been likened to a ‘black box’ effect. In engineering terms, a black box system is one where the inputs and outputs are known but there’s little visibility or clarity of the process by which those results are achieved, which makes it difficult for individuals to make sense of the outcome. Employees have a sense that discussions about their ideas are taking place, but they are not directly involved in the conversation.
Even when a suggestion is accepted, employees are often left with a feeling of being disconnected from the process and therefore from their own input.
Consult the Experts
The implication here is that the relationship between the employees and those responsible for the evaluation of suggestions needs to be one of collaboration, open communication and feedback. Being consulted is also recognition of the employee’s expert status, which provides great intrinsic reward and builds engagement.
The research suggests therefore that the effectiveness of a workplace suggestion scheme in encouraging valuable suggestions from employees is reliant on 3 key elements:
- The decision-making process needs to be open and transparent;
- Employees should be involved as expert consultants in the evaluation and implementation of their ideas; and
- Managers need to have the capacity to create a collaborative environment within which all suggestions can be considered.