Organisations do better when there are clear communication channels that allow staff to point out ways the company can improve. Similarly, teams who freely share ideas and concerns are more tight-knit and motivated. And their managers get enhanced awareness, and to share in the praise for any improvements that pay off. So encouraging employee voice should be a no-brainer, especially for any manager feeling unsure of their ability to deliver solo. Yet according to new research, these insecure managers are the ones least likely to listen and act on staff input.
Nathanael Fast and colleagues began with a survey of 41 managers and their 148 staff within a multinational oil company. Managers who rated themselves lower on managerial self-confidence (e.g. they disagreed with statements like “I am confident that I can perform effectively on many different tasks”) tended to have staff who were less likely to speak out, stating that they perceived their manager did not encourage it. Why? A follow-up experiment aimed to find out.
One hundred and thirty-one employed participants (84 women) read an imaginary scenario in which they were the manager of an airline that was receiving a rise in customer complaints. The scenario then described a meeting where the participant began announcing a solution. But before they had finished, an employee – a maintenance chief named Spencer – offered an alternative he argued was better for the airline in the long-term.
The researchers found that whether participants heeded Spencer’s advice depended on their confidence, which was manipulated at the start of the scenario. Some participants were told that they were performing impressively, others were told that people were questioning their competence. Those in the latter condition expressed lower faith in the maintenance officer’s expertise and showed less willingness to either implement his proposal or to seek help in the future from him or his colleagues.
The underlying cause appears to be the existential threat posed to low-confidence managers by these employee ideas. As people are loath to admit to such insecurities, the researchers didn’t directly measure them. Instead, they showed they could cancel the effect of low confidence by asking participants to complete a positive affirmation: a short writing exercise reminding themselves of their other positive qualities, As this intervention worked, it suggests that the root cause of managers’ ignoring staff advice was related to their own defensiveness and desire to protect their managerial status.
Accepting unsolicited feedback can be challenging for anyone. But “The Manager” is by definition on top of things, so gaps in awareness can be particularly threatening for people in that role. Self-confidence makes it easier to take that medicine, and enjoy its benefits in the long-term. But those anxious about their capability may be afraid of being unmasked, and turn away from sources of insight, at their own cost.
Here we see how the harms caused by self-doubt can spill over into a wider climate. Organisations could help new managers put aside unrealistic expectations of their need to be omniscient, and to recognise the benefits of putting the entire team brain to work. After all, better to have the Spencers of this world on your side than against you.
Fast, N., Burris, E., & Bartel, C. (2014). Managing to Stay in the Dark: Managerial Self-Efficacy, Ego Defensiveness, and the Aversion to Employee Voice Academy of Management Journal, 57 (4), 1013-1034 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0393