By Steve Kelman

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Good management engenders sound advice, study says

mentor and student

Research by organizational scholars suggests that when frontline employees speak up in a constructive manner about how to improve the organization's approaches, methods and procedures, the organization's performance will frequently improve. Frontline employees are often a source of close-to-the-ground insights about problems that higher-level managers may not see. Beyond that, as a general matter, diversity of information and insights in a group tends to promote better solutions.

But employees may often be hesitant to speak. The worst-case scenario is that they are indifferent or aloof. But even conscientious employees may hesitate to speak up lest they be seen as troublemakers. And making such suggestions is seldom part of an employee's job description – it is a form of going "above and beyond" at the workplace.

Shahidul Hassan, a young faculty member at Ohio State University's John Glenn College of Public Affairs, has recently published an interesting – and practical – paper in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory on how managers can encourage employees to make constructive suggestions for organization improvement. (Hassan distinguishes what he calls "improvement-centered voice" – suggestions for improved ways to do the work -- from whistleblowing or even from complaining.)

Hassan surveyed public sector employees (at a "large Midwest state agency," not identified, but no prize for guessing it's in Ohio) on various perceptions of their immediate supervisor's behavior and of the degree of personal control they have over doing their jobs.  He then surveyed each employee's supervisor on that employee's improvement-suggestion behavior. Thus we can examine relationships between employee views of features of their supervisors and jobs, and the supervisor's view of employee initiative in suggesting improvements.

The feature of the supervisor's behavior that was examined is called in the literature "ethical leadership." Examples of questions were whether the supervisor "communicates clear ethical standards for members," "can be trusted to carry out commitments that he or she makes," and "keeps actions consistent with stated values." The hypothesis was that ethical leaders create a greater climate of safety for employees, where they don't feel afraid to make suggestions.

The feature of the work environment that was examined was the employee's sense of personal control.  Here the questions included, "My impact on what happens in my work unit is large" and "I have significant autonomy in determining how I do my job." The hypothesis in this case was that without a high sense of personal control the employee would feel it was useless to make suggestions, even if he or she wasn't afraid to do so, because nothing would happen.

Supervisors alsowere asked to rate the employee; questions included whether the employee "speaks up and encourages other employees to get involved in issues that affect the unit" or "develops and makes recommendations about issues concerning the unit."

And what did Hassan find? Ethical leaders were more likely to have employees who made improvement suggestions, and employees with a high degree of personal control were more likely to do so as well.  Finally, when an employee felt a high degree of personal control, the relationship between ethical leadership and employee improvement suggestions was higher than when the employee felt less control.

So if we wish to encourage employee suggestions that can improve our organization's performance, managers can do so by behaving ethically – sticking to commitments, walking the ethical talk. (Not a bad idea for other reasons as well!) And other research suggests that managers who provide employees with information about policies, solicit employee suggestions when making decisions, and delegate promote a sense of employee control.

Some of Hassan's findings may seem self-evident, but it's good to see evidence that good management really can help an organization get more suggestions from its employees.  All agencies should make that effort, and actively seek employees' input on how to change approaches and processes to do a better job.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 05, 2015 at 1:37 PM


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