Why won't managers listen to their employees?

Organizations that listen to their employees perform better. Yet many managers ignore good ideas from their employees. Why is that, wonders innovation expert Simone van Neerven? “They often take criticism too personally and believe their abilities are being questioned.”

Being silenced

Sandra Palmen works as a top lawyer at the Tax and Customs Administration of the Dutch government. By the end of 2016, she is instructed to investigate the childcare benefits system. Palmen publishes a devastating report in March 2017 warning of all the wrongdoings. However, her suggestions are disregarded, and Palmen’s position is “reconsidered,” which essentially means that all of her duties are taken away from her. Palmen leaves.

Years later, the topic becomes one of the most contentious political affairs in the Netherlands. A parliamentary inquiry takes place and Palmen’s full story comes out. To help prevent similar incidents in the future, a new position is formed within the Dutch Ministry. She currently works independently to support public officials in developing a stronger sense of the Rule of Law, a moral compass, and the courage to speak up when they notice something is wrong.

No longer wish to live

After several years, things finally worked out for Palmen. However, it isn’t always the case. Senior policy officer Arthur Gotlieb at the Dutch Healthcare Authority became increasingly concerned about the organization’s shifting culture and produced a thorough report on every misconduct and misbehaviour. He subsequently faced systemic opposition and began to get poor performance ratings. This had such an impact on Gotlieb that he made the decision to take his own life in 2014.

Strong sense of righteousness

Palmen and Gotlieb shared a commitment to the common good and a strong sense of justice. While many opted to remain silent and carry on as usual, their urge to step in and help was much stronger than their desire to fit in.

Paradox

Numerous studies have been done on the power of listening to employees. They repeatedly demonstrate that when companies listen to their employees and are receptive to their ideas, insights, and concerns, they perform better and are more inventive.

A diverse viewpoint or fresh perspective, however, is not always welcomed with open arms. There are a surprising number of managers who choose to disregard good suggestions from their team members, going so far as to actively try to silence them. They exclude the team members, and those who speak up may even face sanctions.

How come?

Feeling of inadequacy

According to a study by Fast, Burris, and Bartel, managers who lack confidence in their abilities and feel unqualified are less likely to ask for or welcome employee advice. They feel threatened by ideas for change rather than seeing them as an opportunity to better themselves and the organisation. They frequently take criticism too personally and believe their skills are being called into question, even though the employee just wants to make things better.

Busy busy busy

Another factor is the pressure at work. Managers may feel they can only concentrate on the short term since they are so busy. Additionally, they frequently think that have no power to change things. And so they believe that listening to workers would simply slow down things and create unrealistic expectations.

There’s the rub: employees often know how to structurally fix a problem or stop new ones from developing. This would free up time to tackle new things. Therefore, breaking this cycle would be very beneficial for managers, but doing so calls for guts and a long-term perspective.

Bringing back humanity

In recent years, the emphasis has been so much on increasing efficiency that the human element has taken a back seat. One scandal after another is breaking up more and more organizations as a result of this.

Employees who can walk around in awe and dare to speak out if something is wrong, are so badly needed. They are the ones who help move the organization forward. With their strong moral compass, they are excellent at touching raw nerves, especially when it comes to the lack of humanity in situations.  

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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