Involving employees in workplace decisions has been associated with a wide range of operational benefits. And yet true involvement remains relatively rare in the workplace. Why?
Many factors play a role, of course. But the unintended consequences of hierarchical systems of authority pose a particularly stubborn set of challenges.
Common to virtually all modern organizations, these hierarchies tend to create and reinforce assumptions about who has capacity and who does not, who is a decision-maker and who is not, who is qualified and who is not. In effect, they make the talent pool appear shallower than it actually is.
These systems also impact leaders’ below-the-line views of themselves and their employees. In particular they often lead to beliefs that tend to result in the exclusion of employees. Among these are:
- The belief that it is the boss’s job to make the best decision. Many leaders believe that making the best decisions possible is a central element of their position. This is not incorrect. But a more accurate understanding is that it is the boss’s responsibility to ensure that the best decisions are made. The distinction is important, for research has shown that involving others leads to more effective, creative, and accepted decisions.
- The belief that seeking employee input takes too much time. Time is the most common objection to involving employees, and it is true that involving employees does require an initial investment of time. But involvement is almost always more efficient in the long run. When making a decision unilaterally, a leader’s first task is selling that decision to employees. A decision that has involved employees from the beginning, however, already enjoys, by virtue of the participative process by which it was made, the support and buy-in of those needed to see it to completion. It creates a team already optimized to succeed in its task.
- The belief that an open door policy is an adequate channel for soliciting input. Open door policies are common in the workplace, and many leaders have a genuinely open door. But even the most sincere open door policy puts the onus of action on the employee, which invariably inhibits communication. True involvement is not a passive state of being, not a matter of being willing to listen if an employee has a concern or idea. Rather, it arises from a leader’s conviction that involving employees in decision-making processes benefits him- or herself as much as the employees. It involves proactively and consistently seeking employee input on matters of importance.
Avoiding patterns of thought such as these can help leaders build cultures of commitment and enthusiasm, and help them more effectively leverage the talent, creativity, expertise, and imagination latent in the system they head.