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Beyond the Suggestion Box: How to Encourage Frontline Workers to Speak Up

By Melissa J. Anderson

A new working paper [PDF] out of Harvard Business School purports to show how managers can encourage front line employees to speak up about problems or potential solutions on the job. According to Anita L. Tucker, Associate Professor and Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School, past research has shown that workers tend to be reticent about suggesting improvements on the job – they don’t want to be perceived as someone who holds up the process to their peers, and they don’t want to be seen as a complainer to management.

This is a common issue at many companies and organizations where employees make a habit of just letting things go, without standing up for quality or their personal values, writes Dan Pallotta in the Harvard Business Review.

“People at all levels, especially management, witness the slow undoing of good customer service, product quality, or safety standards, and they don’t say a thing about it. Even if it violates their own value system and the mission of the company. But if everyone at a crummy airline, for example, had the same zero-tolerance for bad customer service as a lesbian has for lying about the fact that she’s married to a woman, it wouldn’t be a crummy airline for long. To stand up for your truth is to be a leader.”

Pallota indicates that true leadership means being willing to take a stand – or gum up the works in the face of a system that is sub-par. Tucker’s research indicates how companies can institutionalize this kind of behavior, in the hopes that it may become part of their cultural DNA. After all companies can benefit significantly if individuals are willing to speak up when there are problems, decreasing inefficiency and avoiding costly product recalls, reputation damage, or even worse.

Speaking Up

In a laboratory test, Tucker’s team tested a few outcomes to see which would be more likely to encourage nurses to speak up on supply problems (whether they had the correct medications for fictional patients in a fairly realistic hospital setting).

First of all, Tucker wanted to see if speaking up could be incentivized and indicated that a charity would receive a donation if performance improved (based on how much the nurses mentioned supply management problems). Second, the team tested whether the nurses were likely to report problems if speaking up on issues was integrated into their job descriptions. And third, the team tested a technique causing “deliberate work-flow blockages designed to force employees to speak up about problems.”

The team found that the charity variable had no effect on the nurse’s behavior. But consistent with other research, the study revealed that the nurses were more likely to improvize workarounds in the heat of the action, and then report the issues later on if their regular course of action was halted (as in the third hypothesis being tested). This actually increases the chances of making costly – or in the hospital setting being tested, even fatal – mistakes.

The second course – creating an institutionalized space in their job descriptions to report process or supply deficiencies – seemed to provide the best course. If the nurses felt it was part of their job, they were more likely to report problems, rather than if it were merely incentivized behavior.

Leadership

By making it natural – even required – for employees to report challenges systematically, mangaers can improve systems and avoid costly problems. What’s more, they create the self-motivated workforce that can help drive results. Tucker writes:

“In competitive environments, it is essential that organizations develop techniques that increase employees’ willingness to engage in proactive behaviors to improve organizational performance. This is especially important in complex service organizations, such as hospitals, where employees have a wide range of discretionary activities that they can perform and lower levels of supervision. We believe that designing work that considers the natural responses of employees when they encounter internal supply chain problems will be helpful in creating improvement programs.”

When managers institutionalize giving employees the authority to speak up about problems, they are granting them the power to lead in the manner that Pallota writes about in his Harvard Business Review article. And that can only be a good thing for companies – that empowerment will drive engagement and productivity.

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