Magazine article Management Review

Is It Risky to Give the Boss a Good Idea?

Magazine article Management Review

Is It Risky to Give the Boss a Good Idea?

Article excerpt

Is It Risky to Give The Boss a Good Idea?

Management experts emphasize the importance of asking employees for ideas. Companies advertise that they want to hear from employees and develop suggestion systems. You would think employees would feel free to volunteer ideas. Not so! Our research has shown that employees believe it is risky to give a boss a good idea. In our research, we defined an idea as something the employee thought of after working in the job for a period of time. It is not a grievance, nor is the employee asking for a raise or a promotion.

In our studies, employees identified the following risks inherent in giving the boss a good idea:

* Losing my job.

* Being labeled a troublemaker.

* Not getting credit if the idea worked.

* Co-workers not liking the idea.

* The boss feeling threatened.

* Having the idea rejected.

To further validate employee concerns, we designed a questionnaire and asked employees to rank the level of risk for the negative consequences identified for giving a boss a good idea. The scoring was:

1. No Risk

2. Some Risk

3. Moderate Risk

4. Probable Risk

5. Very Great Risk

The mean score--after administering the questionnaire to hundreds of employees--was 2.4. That is, the perceived consequence is somewhere between "some risk" (2), and "moderate risk" (3). The greatest perceived risk was having the idea rejected (3.09). Surprisingly, the next highest concern was co-workers not liking the idea (2.79). Not getting credit if the idea worked was third, followed by the boss feeling threatened, being labeled a troublemaker, and losing my job.

In a follow-up study, the questionnaire was completed at the American Management Association Conference on Human Resources Management earlier this year. Although the mean score was slightly lower at 1.9, the human resources managers themselves acknowledged having an idea rejected (2.57) and co-workers not liking the idea (2.39) to be the top risks. This correlates with prior findings and suggests that all efforts to promote employee suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.

Further discussion with employees highlighted the following conclusions:

* Do not expect employees to volunteer ideas just because management announces an "open door" policy or "we want to hear you" campaign. Employees may be hesitant to speak up because of unsatisfactory experiences with previous employers. Values and beliefs take time to change, especially if the employee had unpleasant experiences from previously offered ideas.

* New ideas may be threatening to co-workers and even the boss. Co-workers may feel the employee is trying to "show them up." Others may become jealous and retaliate by not supporting the suggestion.

* The boss may resent a "Know-It-All," especially if the boss believes managers should come up with solutions or that upper management may look unfavorably if workers offer solutions instead of the manager. Research shows that middle managers often feel threatened with employee involvement programs and other forms of participatory management.

In "What Leaders Really Do," (Harvard Business Review, May-June 1990) John Kotter explained why companies have difficulty adjusting to changes in the environment. He claims that people have learned from experience that even if they correctly recognize external changes and then initiate appropriate actions, they are vulnerable to a higher authority who may not like what they have done. Examples of reprimands include: That's against policy, We can't afford it, Shut up, and Do as you are told. …

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