Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 312
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Shut Up For Good

Research discovers factors that stifle improvement suggestions from supervisors.

It's hard to overstate the importance of first-line supervisors. They supervise the employees that accomplish the work . . . that's all the employees and all the work. Owners may decide what is to be done and who will do it, but they would have no business at all without workers and supervisors to direct their efforts.

Supervisors develop an intimate knowledge of both the people who do the work and the work itself. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their people, and they can make work assignments that take advantage of strengths while avoiding the damage that can occur when the wrong people are assigned tasks for which they are ill-suited. They also understand the work. They can recognize efficiencies that no one else can see. They can recognize hazards before anyone gets hurt. They know how the work in one setting fits in with the work in another.

To be sure, supervisors can't do it alone. Executives have their roles to play. General managers, for example, have authority to make changes in allocating resources like rates of pay, hours of work, staffing levels, material resources, and many other decisions. But to do a good job at this next level, we must have input from supervisors, especially improvement suggestions. We can hardly make positive changes without this input, even if we must listen to ideas we don't like that direct us to courses of action we don't want to take. This kind of communication was the subject of a recent study by Ethan Burris, from the University of Texas at Austin. He calls it voice to managers. Voice for short, and he defined it as "upward directed verbal communication that is intended to improve rather than merely criticize."

Burris explored factors that encourage and discourage supervisors to voice improvement suggestions to their bosses. He surveyed 499 first-line supervisors who worked in a large, national chain of restaurants. Two weeks later, he sent surveys to the general managers of these restaurants, and 234 of them responded. He also examined personnel records. When he finished his analysis, he was surprised by his findings. They were sobering.

Burris discovered a pattern of detachment among many of the supervisors. These were people who thought about leaving, who wanted to leave, who may even plan to leave, but didn't. Burris called it psychological withdrawal or quitting without leaving. These supervisors withheld effort from their jobs. They went through the motions, and they did not voice improvement suggestions. This reaction was especially common when the supervisor experienced two kinds of difficult interactions with their general managers: 1) When they felt their general managers had expressed anger toward them that was not justified, and 2) when they believed their general managers had made negative comments about them to a third party.

Quitting before leaving is a fairly common reaction of employees when they find themselves in work settings they find unpleasant, but it was surprising to find it to be common among first-line supervisors.

Supervisors who expressed strong loyalty to their employer did not emerge as likely to voice improvement suggestions. This finding also surprised Burris who expected to find loyal supervisors striving to implement improvements even if they had to take charge themselves. It wasn't true. It didn't happen. The loyal supervisors were quiet. If they had improvement suggestions, they were keeping them to themselves.

Supervisors who experience high quality relationships with their general managers also confounded Professor Burris. He expected these supervisors to speak freely and voice many improvement suggestions. He was wrong. They didn't. These supervisors did not voice improvement suggestions any more frequently than other supervisors.

Finally, Burris' simplest finding was his most troubling. The longer first-line supervisors held their jobs, the less likely they were to speak up. Put another way, the more knowledgeable first-line supervisors became because of their experience managing employees in a work setting, the less likely they were to share insights they gained for improvement with their general managers.

Burris wonders if supervisors may not see the need for their suggestions or may be unwilling to take the risk or go to the trouble to make suggestions. But whatever the explanation, the conclusion is clear. Many supervisors have heard and heeded the message to keep improvement suggestions to themselves. The flow of unsolicited and unwelcome improvement suggestions from supervisors in these settings has stopped. If this is true in your business, then the obvious solution is to solicit improvement suggestions and welcome them when they come. The alternative is to handicap yourself, and this is unnecessary. You need this input to have a positive influence on change.

Reference: Burris, Ethan R., James Detert, and Dan Chiaburu (2008) Quitting Before Leaving: The Mediating Effects of Psychological Attachment and Detachment on Voice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (4), 912-922.

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