Why Managing Employee Voice Is Easier Said Than Done

By Ethan Burris, Ph.D., Professor of Management and the Chevron Centennial Fellow at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin

Employees routinely encounter problems in their work environment. Issues with coordination across functional teams, challenges with effectively implementing the strategy laid out by senior leaders, problems with managerial styles, and even ethical issues. Employees may have some ideas to address them, but they also do not have the sole authority to take action on their own. At the end of the day, they need help from above to make substantive changes.

At the same time, most senior executives want to help facilitate changes in order to realize their strategic goals. They understand that they do not always have all of the information necessary to make decisions. They are not the ones routinely interfacing with suppliers. They are not on the front lines of the manufacturing floor. They are not the ones hearing customer feedback on a daily basis. They have the authority to take action, but they must rely on other employees in the organization to surface the issues that need to be addressed.

Both of these parties rely on middle managers to take strategically important information from employees and either take corrective action right away or relay it in a way that ultimately drives change.

In my own research, I have found that managers who proactively look for change stemming from employee ideas, have the resources necessary to make those changes, or feel they have a direct line to upper management to acquire those resources can leverage employee voice to generate improvements.

In one study, this led to a reduction of turnover by roughly 30 percent. In another, it led to improvements in financial and operational performance by 20 percent.

Yet, the challenge is that these managers are also under tremendous pressure to execute against their current goals, and leveraging employee ideas necessarily means 1) taking on new tasks, 2) changing processes to accomplish existing tasks, and/or 3) explaining to senior executives why their current strategic goals or the processes to accomplish those goals need to be changed.

If these managers begin to feel that there is greater pressure to perform, rather than taking on extra tasks requiring additional time, resources, and attention that would divert from executing against current goals, it becomes easy to deprioritize ideas from below. It becomes easier to ignore problems identified.

For many sensational examples of management failing to act on voice, it is easy to see the ethical failures of executives in ignoring moral pleas to fix problems that could lead to disasters, financial and otherwise. Yet, I highly doubt that any executive or middle manager set out to engage in actions that would cause moral trauma. Competing pressures to perform a set of current tasks and make necessary changes to those very tasks to improve is difficult to navigate.

For those wanting to manage this process better, research does suggest ways to help navigate these tensions. For managers, constructing performance criteria that includes improvement and change can help create greater receptivity to ideas from below that require such changes. For employees, developing a greater sensitivity to the difficulty in driving change can help set the stage for more support. For instance, changes requiring less coordination across multiple stakeholders in the organization or requiring fewer resources to implement makes it easier for managers to support those changes. Pitching the ideas in a way that aligns with the key performance indicators of higher level managers can more compellingly convince them of the importance.

Leveraging employee voice has the potential to catalyze not only performance improvements but engagement among employees who see their ideas come to fruition. Yet ideas can easily get cast aside if the pressures to perform overwhelm the desire to change.

Ethan Burris

Dr. Ethan Burris is a Professor of Management and the Chevron Centennial Fellow at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the Director of the Center of Leadership Excellence for the McCombs School. He earned his PhD in Management from Cornell University, and has served as a Visiting Scholar at Google and Microsoft. He teaches and consults on topics relating to leadership, managing power and politics, leading groups and teams, and negotiations. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, Dr. Burris was named to the “Faculty Honor Roll” in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013, received the Hank & Mary Harkins Foundation Award for Effective Teaching in Undergraduate Classes in 2012, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2011, the ING Professor of Excellence award in 2011, and the 2009 Trammell/CBA Foundation Teaching Award for Assistant Professors.

Dr. Burris’ current research focuses on understanding 1) the antecedents and consequences of employees speaking up or staying silent in organizations, 2) leadership behaviors, processes and outcomes, and 3) the effective management of conflict generated by multiple interests and perspectives. In particular, he has investigated how leaders shape employees decisions whether to speak up or stay silent, and how leaders evaluate those who speak up. His research has appeared in several top management and psychology journals, such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and has been covered in major media outlets such as the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Houston Chronicle.

Dr. Burris has collected data from and served as a consultant for a variety of professional firms, ranging from a Fortune 100 insurance company, a Fortune 500 company in the casual dining industry, several financial services organizations, a defense contracting company, a commercial real estate firm, governmental agencies, and retail organizations.

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