If boss shoots down ideas, employees won’t speak up

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How a manager responds to an employee’s suggestion can influence whether they open up in the future, according to a new study.

Speaking up in front of a supervisor can be stressful—but it doesn’t have to be. A new paper shows how leaders can use language that encourages workers to offer more ideas later, even if the boss doesn’t implement an initial suggestion.

After conducting two studies, researchers found that people who speak up at work only to have a supervisor reject their ideas will nonetheless offer more suggestions later if their bosses respond properly.

“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,” says Danielle King, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice University and lead author of the paper in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

“Specifically, it is critically important for leaders to exhibit sensitivity in their communication with employees.”

Rejected suggestions

The first study, with 197 participants, included a survey asking workers to describe a time when they gave their supervisor a suggestion that the supervisor 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 included a variety 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.

Leadership training

King, whose future research will explore other forms of resilience at work, says she hopes this study will encourage more sensitive communication between leaders and employees.

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

Additional coauthors are from Michigan State University.

Source: Rice University