Maryland Smith Research / April 29, 2022

The Unintended Consequences of Asking for Employee Input

Feeling comfortable enough to speak up and share your ideas and opinions at work is usually a good thing – that’s the environment most organizations should want to encourage. But some managers who solicit input might not give employees who do so enough credit, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Subra Tangirala.

Tangirala, the Dean’s Professor of Management, has done extensive research on speaking up at work. In this new research, featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology and Harvard Business Review, Tangirala – along with Smith PhD student Hyunsun Park and Insiya Hussain, PhD ’19, now at the University of Texas, Austin – explores the unintended negative consequences when managers actively solicit employees to speak up.

In their effort to create the desired environment where employees feel they can candidly share input, many managers actively invite employees to speak up, but then do not adequately reward them for doing so, say the researchers. And that creates problems.

In a field study and an experiment with nearly 1,000 working professionals in the United States and India, the researchers found that the more managers solicited input from their employees, the less likely they were to reward employees for providing that input.

“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,” write the researchers.

Tangirala and his co-authors explain the phenomena with an example: Let’s say a software team employee just shared a potential solution to a known product issue with her manager. If she had spoken up unprompted, she’d likely be hailed as a proactive contributor and a strong candidate for a raise, promotion or high-profile project. But if she had shared that same idea after she was asked for input, the manager might think she spoke up only because she was told to. Because of that, a manager might take the credit for prompting the employee to speak up and not reward her for the problem-solving, even though her input was equally valuable in both cases.

The researchers say it’s an easy trap for managers to fall into, because it’s tough to tell which ideas will be good ones upfront, and generally it may take lots of “bad” ideas to get to the 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,” write the researchers.

When managers actively solicit employee input, they aren’t always considering the time it takes for employees to come up with the ideas and make them known. Instead of rewarding employees for all that effort, the researchers find that managers often pat themselves on the back for creating an environment where employees could share ideas.

“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.”

But that doesn’t mean that managers should stop inviting employees to contribute, say the researchers. Instead they offer these suggestions for managers:

Acknowledge your biases. Realizing you may be susceptible to taking credit for employees’ actions is the first step to overcoming it, say the researchers.

Recognize that good ideas are co-created. On a team, ideas develop with input from both leaders and employees. Don’t discount the effort it takes for employees to speak up and provide their input – the analysis of processes and products, developing solutions, expressing thoughts in a persuasive manner.

“Ultimately, it’s up to managers to create a work environment where employees are empowered to openly share their ideas and concerns,” the researchers write. “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.”

Read the research, “How and When Managers Reward Employees’ Voice: The Role of Proactivity Attributions,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology, and “The Unintended Consequences of Asking for Employee Input,” in Harvard Business Review.

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