Why Your Boss Can't Hear You

Organizations Set Up Managers To Ignore Front-Line Workers' Ideas

Apr 09, 2019
As Featured In 
Organization Science

Front-line workers resent managers who ignore their input. But research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business puts the blame elsewhere when ideas get stifled or punished at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy.

“We demonstrate that managers often fail to create speak-up cultures not because they are self-focused or care only about their own egos and ideas, but because their organizations put them in impossible positions,” Maryland Smith professors Subra Tangirala and Vijaya Venkataramani write in Harvard Business Review, along with Smith PhD alumnus Elad N. Sherf, now at the University of North Carolina.

Specifically, the authors point to two constraints that work against managers caught between senior leaders who frame strategy and workers who implement it. Managers lack autonomy to implement change, and they face pressure to deliver short-term results — so they don't have time for big ideas that could disrupt the daily routine.

“Authority lies at the top of the hierarchy, and they are merely ‘go-betweens,’” the authors write. “And even when they are empowered to act, they still confront demands to show success in the short-term rather than look out for longer-term sustainability. Under such circumstances, even the best-intentioned managers likely avoid soliciting employee ideas and might even stifle them.”

The authors confirm the conundrum in four related studies, summarized in Organization Science. They observe 160 students and then 424 working adults in separate behavioral experiments, and then replicate their findings in two independent surveys of actual employee-manager pairs.

"Managers often fail to solicit voice from their employees because they experience low personal control at work and/or focus on short-term disruptions that can be triggered by voice rather than on its beneficial effects that manifest only over time," the authors conclude.

Read more: Why Managers Do Not Seek Voice from Employees: The Importance of Managers’ Personal Control and Long-Term Orientation, is featured in Organization Science and summarized in Harvard Business Review.

About the Author(s)

Vijaya Venkataramani

Vijaya Venkataramani is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology. Professor Venkataramani's research focuses on how informal social relationships and social networks at work influence leadership, creativity, and discretionary employee behaviors in organizations (behaviors that are not stipulated as part of the job, but that still are important for organizational well-being).

Subra Tangirala

Subra Tangirala is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization. He teaches leadership in the MBA program. His research focuses on interpersonal communication in organizations. Specifically, he explores reasons why employees often remain silent despite having information, concerns, or suggestions to share, and what organizations can do to facilitate candid exchange of ideas at the workplace.

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