Don't complain to these co-workers

February 12, 2023

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Don't complain to these co-workers

Conventional wisdom says it pays to speak up at work: When an employee offers a novel idea for workplace improvements, and managers listen and act, both the organization and employee win.

This is the reason that we have been asked by numerous organizations to help them establish a “speak-up culture.”

But new research finds much depends on whom those employees speak to.

In a recent paper, the researchers examined what factors make speaking up productive, by increasing the likelihood that a suggested change will get implemented or the complaint taken seriously. The lead author said that they found two characteristics of the listener that enhanced the effectiveness of speak up for both an employee and a business:

  • Hierarchy: Having the authority and resources to make the change happen.
  • Competence: Having the know-how to make the change happen.

What the researchers say: “Some employees make the mistake of speaking up to someone who is no higher in the hierarchy,” he said. “They target people who simply do not have the power or social standing to initiate effective change.”

Instead, the author suggests, employees should first consider whether they’re speaking to someone who can take the requested action:

  • Employees should speak upward, to managers who have the authority and resources to address an issue. Speaking more frequently to bosses led to a 12%-15% increase in idea acceptance.
  • Employees should avoid speaking sideways, to peers who have no more power than they have to fix underlying challenges. Speaking sideways was associated with a 10% decrease in the advancement of a suggestion or a complaint.
  • If employees must speak sideways, they should target their most competent peers — those with the most knowledge and influence to help get ideas carried out.

“Employees should think critically about who they direct their voice to, when they have an idea for change,” the researchers said. “Both the amount of authority a person has to drive change and their competence give a greater likelihood of implementing the ideas employees raise, or the complaints being acted on.”

So, what? Speak up initiatives in organizations rarely work. It’s often left very unclear who employees should speak up to. Also there is a great deal of fear that speaking up to voice a complaint about bullying or harassment could be a bad career move.

Much of the training in this area encourages lower-level people to speak up, but does not train managers to listen. This defeats the whole object of the exercise.

Then there is manager bias. This comes into effect when managers reject ideas from those beneath them. The higher up in an organization, the more likely that leaders will only accept their own ideas, or those of peers or superiors.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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