It’s Just Not That Important to Me

School of Business Prof. Researches What Employees Speak Up About

How can an organization encourage employees to share their opinions? Is there a way to have those who work for you have as much buy-in with the organization as those who own it? Kevin Rockmann, associate professor of management in the School of Business at George Mason University is researching the corporate benefits associated with shared communication.

What organizations may not realize is that a manager who has a strong relationship with his employees and encourages an environment for open communication, has great business advantages and can learn specific details about organizational day-to-day issues, such as reducing budgets, hiring replacements, or even who to hire—which could make business operations run more smoothly and save the company money.  

Rockmann says, “Organizations stand to better learn and innovate to the extent that they can understand the problems facing their employees. Managers need information from employees at lower levels of the organization who routinely interact with customers, are closely tied to day-to-day operations, or are responsible for vital product development and services. Despite this need, employees can be reluctant to speak up to those in authority, and therefore organizations may miss opportunities to learn and correct potential problems. Despite logic that managers should embrace feedback from below, not all types of speaking up, or what we call ’voice,’ are welcomed by managers.” 

Rockmann and his coauthors, Ethan Burris and Cindi Baldi of the University of Texas, Austin, used a sample of 188 individuals from two organizations in commercial real estate and defense contracting. Their research objectives included understanding whether fear and futility may inhibit employees from speaking up, understanding why employees do speak up—even in the face of fear and futility—and learning how you can encourage employees to speak up and promote a “culture of voice.”

In this research, Rockmann argues that the degree to which individuals speak up and how that speaking up is valued is related to employee identification. Identification defines how important and meaningful one sees membership in different groups such as one’s department, team, profession, or organization. Identification leads employees to care about different issues, thus shaping what they speak up about.

But Rockmann’s research shows that having an open door policy and welcoming comments from employees is often not enough. Managers often have to seek out the information from employees and should focus on generating higher quality input, not just more input. By understanding and shaping identification, managers may be better able to get the comments they need.  Rockmann said, “Employees will speak up about things they see as personal—it is the manager’s job to align what is personal to the employee and what is important to the company.”

Rockmann is an associate professor in the School of Business at George Mason University. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Using theory on identity, decision-making, and social exchange, his research investigates the development and the influence of various types of attachments in organizations, whether they be at the individual, team, professional, or organizational level. His research has appeared in Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Small Group Research, and the Research in Managing Groups and Teams book series. Rockmann’s primary teaching assignments are Organizational Behavior and Negotiation in the MBA program. To learn more about Professor Rockmann click here.

George Mason University School of Business

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