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How bosses react influences whether workers speak up

Speaking up in front of a supervisor can be stressful – but it doesn’t have to be, according to new research. How a leader responds to employee suggestions can impact whether or not the employee opens up in the future, writes Dr Bob Murray.

The study is to be published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology. The paper explains how leaders can use language that encourages workers to offer more ideas in the future, even if their suggestions are not implemented.

The authors found that people who speak up at work only to have their ideas rejected by supervisors will nonetheless offer more suggestions later if their bosses respond properly.

What the researchers say: “Given that many employee ideas for change cannot be endorsed, our results highlight the practical importance of providing sensitive explanations for why employee suggestions cannot be embraced,” the lead author said. “Specifically, it is critically important for leaders to exhibit sensitivity in their communication with employees.”

The first of two studies, with 197 participants, included a survey asking workers to describe a time when they gave their supervisor a suggestion that was rejected. They also answered questions about the adequacy of their leader’s explanation, how the experience made them feel, and how likely they were to speak up in the future.

The second study, including 223 students, involved two 30-minute online surveys. In this experimental study, students worked as interns for a marketing firm that was developing advertisements for businesses frequented by other students.

Students who provided suggestions about the marketing materials received one of four responses, all of which indicated their boss didn’t agree with their advice. Those four responses covered a range of answers, from sensitive and well-explained to insensitive and poorly explained. The students then had a second chance to offer suggestions on different material.

“It would be useful for organisations to offer training and development for leaders on how to let employees down gently while encouraging them to speak up in the future,” the lead author said.

“As demonstrated in our study, explanation sensitivity led to employees opening up again. In addition, it may be valuable to help employees understand that extenuating circumstances sometimes prevent implementation of potentially good ideas. It also would be useful to provide justification for why complete explanations cannot be revealed for strategic or confidentiality reasons. If such explanations are delivered in a sensitive manner, this should maintain the type of leader-employer relationship that encourages employees to speak up in the future.”

So, what? Our own research into high-performing teams (HPT) has shown that one of the defining characteristics of HPT leaders is the fact that they never reject a suggestion out of hand but are ready to ask how the team member arrived at it, what might be the advantages of trying it out, and what could be learned by exploring it more.

Only about 5 percent of teams really are high performing (defined as those who habitually meet or surpass their targets), and of those, few are truly innovative – perhaps 1 or 2 percent. One of the problems is that few managements understand how to create, maintain, manage or organise an HPT.