Employees are often advised to frame conversations with their bosses as offering solutions to workplace problems instead of just pointing out what isn’t working, lest they earn a reputation as a squeaky wheel.
This rule of thumb seems to be confirmed by a new study from the University of Iowa. The study finds that supervisors are more willing to listen to (and act on) their employees’ input if it is presented as a solution-oriented idea. If employees do little more than point out a problem, the supervisor is more likely to dismiss it as just complaining.
One of the study co-authors says this doesn’t mean that employees who point out problems are actually complaining. Daniel Newton, assistant professor of management & entrepreneurship in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, says issues employees report may be important and something the supervisor needs to know. But he says the way the comment is framed can immediately turn off the boss’ inclination to listen.
“In both cases, employees are trying to help the organization, but when you pile on the problems, it’s draining for the supervisor and eventually, they can’t deal with it,” says Newton.
The researchers came to their conclusions after conducting a pair of studies—one a series of surveys with workers and supervisors at a large organization, the other a lab experiment—that showed people paid more attention to solution-oriented comments than comments that simply identified problems. The studies also found that the strained relationship went both ways between supervisors and their reports. Not only did supervisors feel worn out by employee comments about problems, but the employees were more likely to see their supervisor as poorly performing when their supervisor was drained by concerns.
“The employee did what they thought was part of the job and if they don’t see something happen, that’s reflected in their assessment of the supervisor,” he says.
The studies also found that supervisors were more welcoming to employee feedback when they perceived themselves to have more power.
“If they see themselves as having more power, then they can help with the solution,” he says. “But if the supervisor doesn’t see herself as having the power to fix things and that their hands are tied, then they feel the problems their employees voice are even more draining.”
He says organizations can use this finding to improve employee morale and productivity by increasing their supervisors’ sense of perceived authority through training that shows them how to fix problems or empower their reports to fix the problems themselves.
Newton’s study, “I’m Tired of Listening: The Effects of Supervisor Appraisals of Group Voice and Supervisor Emotional Exhaustion and Performance,” was co-authored by Hudson Sessions of the University of Oregon, Jennifer Nahrgang of Arizona State University, and Melissa Chamberlin of Iowa State University. It was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
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