By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new working paper out of Harvard Business School, the suggestion box can be an avenue for senior managers to show they’re listening to employee concerns. But only if they actually take action.

The researchers, Anita L. Tucker and Sara J. Singer, analyzed two different methods of approaching the metaphorical suggestion box: “action-oriented” and analysis-oriented.” In the analysis-oriented approach, managers analyze and then prioritize suggestions for improvement, focusing in the highest priority issues first to ensure limited resources go to the most pressing issues. In the action-oriented method, managers deal with issues as they arise.

Tucker and Singer explain, “The tradeoff involves choosing whether to allocate resources to identify and prioritize problems with the goal of solving the highest priority problems versus to allocate resources to resolve problems with the goal of addressing as many as possible.”

While the analysis-oriented approach can enable managers to prioritize resource allocation, the action-oriented approach enables managers to spend more time resolving problems.

But, when all is said and done, it seems, employees prefer to see action based on their suggestions for improvement, with managers addressing issues as they arise, rather than “saving up” for big problems down the road.

Two Approaches

In the paper, “Key Drivers of Successful Implementation of an Employee Suggestion-Driven Improvement Program,” Tucker and Singer analyzed problem solving approaches at 20 hospitals over an 18-month long “employee suggestion-driven improvement program,” which involved 58 work areas. They explain that previous research has shown employees are more engaged in improvement programs if they believe managers will “act on their ideas.”

And indeed, their research (which measured “perceived improvement in performance,” or how employees felt about managers’ responsiveness to their suggestions) showed that employees took the program more seriously when they saw managers doing, rather than prioritizing. They write:

“The action-oriented approach was manifested by a higher percentage of solved problems that were considered “easy” to solve, which enabled more problems to be addressed with the same set of human and organizational resources. In contrast, the analysis-oriented approach, as characterized by identifying and solving higher priority problems, was not associated with improved PIP.”

They continue, “We propose that using an analysis-oriented approach may not be beneficial when the problem landscape has many small to medium priority problems and few high priority ones, as we believe is the case in our study.”

Taking Action

Tucker and Singer believe that the analysis-oriented approach, in which managers prioritize issues, leads employees to feel nothing is being done and their suggestions aren’t being taken seriously. Prioritization takes up limited resources that could be used to address suggestions put forth by employees.

They write, “Solving a higher percentage of the highest priority problems was not associated with increased PIP, while solving easy-to-solve problems was, lending support to the action-oriented approach. This signals the value of going after the ‘low-hanging fruit’ rather than concentrating on the ‘big hits.’”

Finally, they explain, it’s important for senior management to get involved in the suggestion-box process by throwing their weight behind the need for improvement. “Increasing senior managers’ involvement with performance improvement programs can result in positive change if they facilitate action on identified issues.”

They continue:

“One explanation for this finding is that organizational change often requires senior managers to provide financial resources to pay for required equipment, materials, or labor; and organizational support to get an upstream department in the organization to change how they do their work as benefits might accrue downstream. In other words, senior managers can help ensure that action happens.”

Support from the top and management action on suggestions can help improve employee engagement, as workers perceive that their company is paying attention to their needs and ideas. When they see action being taken on small issues, they feel they are making a difference and that management is listening to them. Conversely, when many challenges go up for analysis and prioritization there can be a sense that employee suggestions don’t really matter at the top.

For the best outcome, Tucker and Singer suggest, companies should focus on “increasing capacity to act on improvement suggestions rather than generating suggestions and prioritizing them.”