The most effective managers and supervisors actively seek employee ideas and opinions on a regular basis, not just when big decisions are being made. Those who are regularly doing a task may have excellent ideas for how the task can be done more efficiently or effectively. Nevertheless, it is important for managers and supervisors as well as employees to remember that ideas and opinions should be used as part of decision-making–not used in place of well thought-out decisions by managers and supervisors.
New supervisors and managers: The idea of carefully evaluating employee input is especially crucial for new supervisors and managers. They may be anxious to build rapport with their new staff or team but do not yet have a grasp of the big picture. As a new manager don’t act too quickly in your effort to gain acceptance. Wait until you understand the totality of work and the ramifications of the ideas you are hearing.
•Ideas for one person or group may have a negative effect on others. A new form, method or process that will work very well for John or Janet may create tremendous burdens for everyone else. In addition to listening to employees, managers should communicate with other managers before making decisions that have a larger impact. Then, explain the issues as a way to help the employee learn to see the bigger picture, even if he or she still has a preference.
•Employees do not usually have the level of knowledge about larger issues that managers have–or should have. When the Denver Police Department was planning for World Youth Day and the visit of Pope John Paul II, two officers with a lot of tenure thought it was very funny that I was looking at information on Porta-Potties. In response I asked them how many portable toilets they thought we would need for 500,000 people, how many were in the state of Colorado and what it would take to get enough here in time. After they looked at the information and realized what a challenge it would be, one of them said, “That’s the trouble with our mayor, he says yes to everything. He should have said we didn’t want World Youth Day here because it’s so much work for the city.”
•Employees ideas may be purposely or inadvertently self-serving. Most employee suggestions don’t mention a downside or potential problem. If you’re the manager or supervisor you need to be thinking of those. When employees have suggestions about issues with which you’re not completely familiar, ask them to provide you with the things that could go wrong and how those could be avoided. Then, get other input before deciding.
A manager of a large group commented that almost all the improvement suggestions he received involved what employees thought they could stop doing for customers, what safety procedures they could eliminate or what rule was no longer needed. He said after five years he had only received two or three ideas for how employees could provide better service or be more efficient in their use of resources. His example may not be typical–but it isn’t unusual either. I think that phenomena is called human nature.
•If there are bad results, it is most likely the implementing manager or supervisor who will be held responsible, not the employees who made the suggestion. It’s inevitable that some decisions will not work out well. Usually those are fixable and work moves on. However, managers and supervisors should have better reasons for their decisions than, “Bill and Gloria said it was the best way to do it.” Ideas should be welcomed and carefully reviewed, not welcomed and implemented without review.
Some of the most serious or tragic errors I have heard about–or made myself–were the result of decisions based primarily on the clamoring input of staff or group members. Often they are so close to the work they see no other options–and there are nearly always options. That is why, whether we’re talking about work, government, the military, a surgical team, a family or anything else, checks and balances and unbiased input are needed.
A good rule: If you think to yourself: I’m approving this against my better judgment, use your better judgment and don’t approve it, at least not right then.
When you’re the employee with a suggestion or opinion: Make it your goal to gain the knowledge, skills and insights needed to give valuable input. Do self-evaluation of your ideas to ensure they reflect the needs of the organization and its customers and clients. Also remember that the person to whom you’re making the suggestion may respect you, like you and want to encourage you–but still have reasons for not adopting or supporting your ideas. That’s not a slight to you, just a reality of work.
The bottom line: It is a laudable concept to seek the input and ideas of employees. However, the responsibility of managers and supervisors is to listen, evaluate and make final decisions, based on many criteria and considerations.
In the picture above, Patton was listening to a soldier–a trait for which he was well known. He was sincerely interested in the thoughts of soldiers in the field. However, you can bet he didn’t suggest a military strategy to General Eisenhower by saying, “Private Smith said the guys all want to attack from this direction because it will save time. I would hate for them to think we don’t value their input, so let’s do it their way.”