3 Portraits of Employee Involvement

In your organization, how much employee input does management get before deciding a course of action?

In large, hierarchical organizations, the answer is often “not much.” In a command-and-control structure, management frequently makes the decisions and hands them to employees for implementation. If employees feel the course of action is ill-advised, they have little voice. If they speak up, they may be perceived as trouble makers. If they don’t speak up, they slowly die inside as they trudge to work each day to implement something they don’t completely believe in.

In surveys, these employees tell management they want more opportunities to provide input. And they don’t mean implementing a suggestion box that no one consistently monitors. They want to be involved in a more meaningful way.

Consider these three brief tales of true involvement:

Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc for Gulf Coast infrastructure providers. Telecom companies, utilities, and road/bridge contractors faced an overwhelming influx of new projects. Business processes that had worked just fine in “peace time” buckled under the strain of the increased workload. After the hurricane repair work had subsided, one large company hired a consultant to interview their project managers to get feedback and recommendations. Front-line employees were integral to designing significant process improvements.

At LoyaltyOne in Canada, a group of passionate volunteers petitioned for the greening of the company. This grassroots effort soon became a cornerstone of company culture and branding. According to Debbie Baxter, Loyalty One’s Chief Sustainability Officer, employees drove the adoption of recycled paper, electronic payroll statements, “Free to a Good Home Forum (where staff can share gently used items with other employees to keep them out of landfill),” and the external venture AIR MILES for Social Change “to drive positive environmental impact across Canada.” LoyaltyOne’s culture of listening to employee input has led to numerous awards.

The staff at Id-Ra-Ha-Je, a large Colorado retreat facility and summer camp, wanted to improve customer service. Director Mike DeBoer explained, “We want customers to have a smile on their faces and warmth in their hearts” after interactions with us." To get new ideas, he and his front-office crew went to local businesses and quietly observed customer-employee interactions. They also called other retreat/camping organizations and evaluated the phone conversations. “Our goal was not to judge other folks on how well or poorly they treated us, but to open our eyes to see how we like to be treated.” Based on these visits and calls, employees came up with specific ideas for enhancing customer experience.

Cultural requirements

Meaningful employee involvement happens when the following beliefs are part of an organization’s culture:

  1. Because employees are at the front line with customers, and because they are personally working within the constraints of the tools, processes, and policies you have in place, they have important insights about what works well and what doesn’t. They should be the first place you go if you want input.
  2. Learning is a two-way event. Employees learn from managers. But managers also can learn from employees. And both can learn together, side-by-side.
  3. Hiring a consultant to do things your current staff can do is a quick way to damage employee morale. Use consultants sparingly. Yes, they can be very helpful in developing strategy, because they can see your organizational challenges with fresh eyes and from multiple perspectives (management, employees, customers, shareholders, etc.). But without adequate employee involvement, the consultants’ work may not earn employee buy-in and may simply end up in a binder, collecting dust on a shelf.
  4. Employees need feedback on their ideas. It’s not possible or advisable to implement every single suggestion. But don’t just ignore the suggestion; have a dialogue about it. You may find you disagree on the suggested solution, but agree on the problem. Together, you may be able to come up with new ideas that neither you nor the employee had considered before.

Do you agree? I’m curious to hear your thoughts and stories.

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