Encourage employee voice with managerial responsiveness

A fresh graduate, eager to make a positive impact through her work, landed her dream job in an organization where her role was to help make employees' lives better - what could be more exciting?

As the new Director of Life Quality Programming, she was very motivated to make a difference, and quickly developed relationships throughout the organization. She also came up with lots of ideas on how to make their programs better.

But then something she didn’t expect happened: when she spoke up in meetings, she sensed some unease from her manager. Over the coming months, this unease turned into hostility when any idea was put forth that didn’t align with the manager’s plans. Eventually, things came to a head when her manager pulled her aside and demanded that she ask for permission anytime she spoke to someone outside of the immediate department. Perhaps it was a fear that she would speak up with ideas that countered the manager, or just a general insecurity in the managerial role (research tell us a general insecurity leads managers to avoid ideas offered by their employees), but we do know how this young woman felt as a result.

She was emotionally devastated. When things didn’t improve over time, she eventually quit her dream job. It took her six months to land another role, at a 25% pay cut. Looking back, she says she’d do it all again; leaving was absolutely the right decision.

This story is what led me to study employee voice - how and when people give improvement-oriented suggestions. Understanding how managers create an open environment so their teams feel free to speak up (the opposite of the above example) is the first step. Studies indicate that suggestion boxes (or online versions), anonymous hotlines, having an open door, or even large programs to collect employee ideas or report ethical problems are effective. These initiatives all focus on getting employees to put their ideas on the table, even if they feel a twinge of discomfort in speaking truth to power.

But my research has shown that this is only the first half of the equation. If managers don’t think about the second half - what happens after employees speak up - they might undermine the very dynamic they are trying to create. Giving employees voice is ultimately about making changes. And, managers who are not responding with substantive action to address the issues raised by employees can instead foster a sense of frustration, impotence, and even disengagement and turnover.

In one study of a national restaurant chain, where managers exhibited responsiveness to increasing levels of employee dissatisfaction, speaking up significantly decreased the amount of turnover during the subsequent six months by an average of 32%. However, employee turnover increased by an average of 26% in restaurants where managers did not respond well to employee feedback.

The cues that your manager is responsive? They will proactively seek out problems to address, will have access to resources to implement the changes identified, and will be able influence higher level leaders that the issues are worth addressing.

Voice can be a signal of a true learning environment where changes are routinely made for the better . . . or it can be a signal that the environment is rife with problems and little hope of improvements coming around the corner. It all depends on what happens after employees voice.