Breaking NewsThe Unintended Consequences of Asking for Employee Input

Most managers try to create an environment in which their employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions. Unfortunately, new research suggests that actively soliciting input can have unintended negative consequences: The more managers solicit input from their employees, the less likely they are to reward employees for speaking up. This can be very demoralizing for employees, who have likely invested time and effort into developing and sharing their thoughts. To address this tension, the authors suggest that managers acknowledge the common tendency to discount the effort employees put into coming up with and expressing ideas just because they were shared in response to a direct request for input, and instead recognize that the best ideas are often co-created by managers and their teams. This means not only rewarding employee proactivity, but also demonstrating that all input is valued — regardless of whether it was solicited or offered without prompting.

Everyone benefits when employees feel comfortable speaking up. Whether you’re a team lead seeking product design ideas, a manager sourcing feedback on a new policy, or a top executive looking for input on a major strategic decision, it’s critical to create an environment in which people are encouraged to candidly share their ideas and opinions.

However, our new research (forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology) suggests that the approach many managers take when trying to create such an environment — that is, actively inviting employees to provide their input — can have unintended negative consequences: Through a field survey and an experimental study with a total of nearly 1,000 working professionals in the U.S. and India, we found that the more managers solicited input from their employees, the less likely they were to reward employees for speaking up. This could be highly demoralizing for the employees, who had invested time and effort in developing and speaking up about ideas that could help their teams.

Why does this happen? Let’s say you’re a manager on a software team, and your employee, Susan, just shared a potential solution to a known product issue. If Susan spoke up unprompted, you would likely view her as a very proactive employee, and a strong candidate for a raise, high-profile project, or promotion. On the other hand, if Susan shared the same idea, but only did so after you asked for her input during a meeting, you might think that Susan only spoke up because you told her to. In this situation, you might credit yourself for Susan’s actions, and thus not reward Susan as highly — even though she offered equally valuable input in both cases.

This is an easy trap for managers to fall into. It’s generally hard to tell how valuable an idea will be upfront, and it’s often necessary to produce many “bad” ideas in order to uncover a few good ones. As such, managers don’t often reward employees solely based on the apparent value of the ideas they contribute, and instead focus on rewarding employees’ proactivity in coming up with and expressing ideas.

The problem is, when managers actively solicit employee input, it can lead them to discount the proactivity it still takes for employees to come up with and express their ideas. Rather than rewarding employees for that effort, we found that managers would often take credit themselves for creating an environment that they felt had enabled employees to speak up. In other words, soliciting input led managers to assume (consciously or subconsciously) that their employees were only speaking up because they were asked to, making them less likely to reward employees for those ideas.

Of course, this is not to suggest that managers shouldn’t invite their employees to contribute ideas. Explicitly soliciting input is a great way to gather new, innovative ideas from employees who might not otherwise feel comfortable or confident enough to speak up. But our research illustrates how it can also make managers less likely to reward employees for speaking up, and thus potentially reduce employees’ motivation to continue sharing their ideas.

Acknowledge Your Biases

To address this tension, managers should first acknowledge that they may be susceptible to a bias that leads them to credit themselves for their employees’ actions. This is not an entirely new concept: There is a body of research documenting a related bias known as the Romance of Leadership effect, which refers to how people tend to see leaders (rather than employees) as the main cause of positive outcomes on a team. As with any bias, managers’ acknowledgment of their own tendency to discount employee effort and overly credit themselves is the first step to overcoming it.

Recognize That Good Ideas Are Co-Created

Next, managers can further reduce the potency of this bias by recognizing that on a team, ideas develop via a process of co-creation between leaders and employees. Even if managers take steps to create conditions that are favorable for idea generation, such as ensuring a welcoming, inclusive environment and actively seeking out employees’ viewpoints and suggestions, they should not invalidate the effort it still takes for employees to provide that input. Employees often invest substantial time and effort into analyzing work processes and products, identifying issues and problems, developing solutions, and expressing their thoughts in an appropriate and persuasive manner. Managers shouldn’t let their own efforts in soliciting input be a reason to negate the effort employees demonstrate when they speak up.

Ultimately, it’s up to managers to create a work environment where employees are empowered to openly share their ideas and concerns. That means not only rewarding proactivity, but also demonstrating that all input is valued and recognized — regardless of whether it was solicited or offered without prompting.

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