I entered the newly designed express lane at the grocery store, said “Hi” to the cashier, and then realized I was on the back side of the lane, which looked exactly like the front side! The cashier said, with evident frustration, “It’s happened a lot lately. I wish the managers had gotten input from the cashiers before changing the lanes.”
The problem is not new, nor is it confined to grocery stores. Even after decades of research documenting that workers are capable of insight, particularly about their own areas of responsibility, managers routinely make decisions without seeking input from the people most impacted by those decisions.
By refusing to consult employees, managers not only deprive themselves of ideas for improving workplace performance and customer satisfaction and ultimately increasing profit; they also give employees the impression they are not respected or valued and thus create morale problems.
Fortunately, there are steps that managers can take to overcome this problem. The following are among the simplest and most practical:
Get rid of deprecating notions about employees, particularly about employees’ ability to think and solve problems. The idea that only managers have that ability is a late nineteenth-century notion that has been thoroughly discredited. (In fact, employees are sometimes better thinkers than their bosses.)
Treat your subordinates as you do your superiors. This approach is not just a sign of character, but also a matter of good management. Surprisingly, many managers do not recognize that being rude and condescending toward subordinates invites resentment and hinders performance. To gain the respect of subordinates, whenever you speak to them address them by name, maintain eye contact, give careful consideration to their concerns and requests, and be scrupulously courteous.
Develop a service mentality toward employees. Most managers realize that their success depends on how well they meet customers’ needs. But far fewer realize the importance of meeting their subordinates’ needs, as well. To do so, spend less time making pronouncements and more time asking questions. Among the most important is this one that identifies problems and spurs the search for solutions: “What can management do to help you do your job better?” Ask it frequently, listen to the answers, and make an effort to act on them. (Remember that no one knows the answer to this question better than the individual employee.)
Get rid of the suggestion box. Not only is it too impersonal to be meaningful, but managers tend to be lax in retrieving the suggestions, dismissive of most ideas (including really good ones), and slow to acknowledge the contributions. It seldom takes long for employees to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that managers have little or no interest in what they have to say.
Stimulate thought and discussion about workplace issues. Mention in all company bulletins and postings the major concerns in the company, including the elimination of bottlenecks, duplication of effort, and unnecessary repetition. In addition, invite all employees to regard those concerns as challenges to their ingenuity.
In order to apply this suggestion, you will have to overcome the tendency to reserve major areas of concern exclusively for management. Remember that not even the most brilliant people can produce insights to problems that are hidden from them.
Circulate proposed changes in policies or regulations well in advance of the final determination. Many managers pretend to do this, but the “draft” that they circulate for consideration is in fact the final decision which they have no intention of altering. Few employees are fooled by such pretense. Instead of that approach, circulate early drafts that are open to change, and pose such questions as: How will this affect you and others? What arguments could be raised against it? Is there a better way? When answers are submitted, give them full and fair consideration. In addition, give credit for the ideas that are finally accepted, and explain why ideas that seemed promising were ultimately rejected.
Start consulting in small matters and then progress to larger ones. Some managers will oppose the previous suggestion by arguing that circulating proposals for action will upset some employees. (This argument often disguises their fear of losing authority.) Don’t be deterred by such arguments. The satisfaction employees receive from being involved in decision making far outweighs the danger of upsetting a few people. Besides, employee involvement will reduce the incidence of idle speculation and false rumors.
To overcome managers’ reluctance, begin by consulting employees on smaller matters. For example, if it is decided that the design of employees’ uniforms should be changed, solicit employees’ ideas at the outset and give them careful consideration.
Consider establishing small brainstorming groups, each composed of an executive, a supervisor, and two or three non-supervisory employees. Schedule meetings on a regular or occasional basis with topics of discussion posted in advance. In managing such meetings, take special care that the discussion is not dominated by executives and supervisors.
Don’t expect results immediately, particularly if the established pattern in your company has been to exclude employees from all aspects of decision making. Expect their initial reaction to be “They can’t be serious about this.” Even when your actions dispel that idea, expect employees to feel awkward in their new role. With your continuing encouragement to contribute, the awkwardness will pass.
Such approaches are long overdue in most businesses. Throughout the past century, the prevailing idea has been that employees should “leave their minds at the company gate.” That false notion has caused enmity between employers and employees and deprived companies of a valuable source of ideas. Rejecting it will not only raise employee morale—it will strengthen American business.
Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
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