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When employees talk and managers don’t listen

Dangers lurk if suggestions are sought but are not considered.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: When Employees Stop Talking and Start Fighting: The Detrimental Effects of Pseudo Voice in Organizations

Authors: Gerdien de Vries (Leiden University), Karen A. Jehn (Melbourne University), and Bart W. Terwel (Leiden University)

Publisher: Journal of Business Ethics

Date Published: July 2011

When faced with important decisions, managers can choose to rule in an autocratic (making unilateral choices) or democratic (inviting employees to have a say) way. Managers are often encouraged to take the democratic approach (generally called participative management) because research has shown that motivation, job performance, and morale increase when employees have the opportunity to contribute their concerns and ideas.

But this study finds that there’s a consequence to giving employees a voice: A company then has to listen. If employees conclude that a manager is just trying to win points by paying lip service to consulting them — and has no intention of acting on their advice — they are likely to stop offering input and, worse, act out their frustration by clashing with their colleagues.

The researchers refer to the illusion of having participative influence as “pseudo voice.” It comes into play whenever a manager ignores ideas slipped into suggestion boxes, concerns voiced in meetings, and complaints registered in employee surveys. And it is common even at companies that say they are committed to giving employees a chance to contribute their ideas. In that setting, according to the authors of this paper, some managers feel constrained to ask for their employees’ views even though they have no intention of following through on anything they hear.

The researchers chose a healthcare company in the Netherlands to be the site of what they said was the first empirical test of the effects of pseudo voice at an actual firm. Surveys were completed by 137 employees, who answered questions on a seven-point scale about their opportunities to voice opinions, the level of regard their input received from management, the methods they used to contribute ideas, and how they viewed their relationships with co-workers.

To compare perceptions on both sides of the management divide, the researchers also surveyed 14 supervisors, who answered the same questions and provided ratings about management’s attitude. Their responses were largely consistent with those of employees. In fact, the supervisors said that they actually ignored their employees’ input a bit more often than the employees suspected. The fact that the employees were more frequently ignored than they realized implies that the study gives a conservative assessment of the prevalence of pseudo voice — and the reach of its damaging effects.

The researchers performed a hierarchical regression analysis on the ratings, controlling for the effects of education and organizational tenure (employees reported speaking up much more often when they had more schooling or had worked longer at the company). The researchers found that employees who suspected that their managers only feigned interest in their ideas became more reluctant to offer input.

A second regression analysis showed that, in turn, when employees voiced their opinions less often, their conflicts with colleagues increased. The conflicts took a variety of forms, including bossing someone around, refusing to participate fully in meetings, and starting arguments. The researchers posit that disgruntled employees took out their frustrations on co-workers because they feared losing their jobs or experiencing other reprisals if they challenged their managers.

Conversely, employees who thought their manager was indeed paying attention spoke up more often and got along better with one another, improving the organization’s functioning as a whole.

With so much to be gained, some managers may be tempted to play the voice card cynically, capitalizing on the initial trust that employees typically exhibit. “If a manager succeeds in offering employees an illusion of influence without being noticed, the organization benefits from the positive effects of voice opportunity,” the authors write.

But such bogus efforts will most likely backfire on the manager, the authors warn. “It is likely that their employees will soon notice that their input is not regarded, and the accompanying negative feelings will undo the positive effects of voice opportunity,” they write. “As a result, employees are more likely to suspect pseudo voice in future situations,” and wind up convinced that their opinions are being ignored even when they are not.

To avoid this outcome, it is not enough for managers to solicit opinions only when they intend to listen — they also have to provide feedback that includes tangible evidence that they followed up and did something.

Bottom Line:
Giving employees the opportunity to voice their opinions can be a positive force for change. But don’t put out a suggestion box if you aren’t willing to implement at least some of the suggestions.

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