Management

Do Employees Have a 'Voice' at Your CU?

Effective leaders must seek out ideas from all organizational levels.

August 19, 2010
KEYWORDS employees , ideas , managers
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How well do credit unions get information from their employees?

And how comfortable do employees feel about speaking their mind?

The Filene Research Institute sheds light on those questions in a new study, "Employee Voice and (Missed) Opportunities for Learning in Credit Unions."

Most credit union leaders recognize the need for employees to speak up and share their ideas, and that recognition often leads to formal processes designed to encourage "voice," according to the report.

The problem: Formal reporting mechanisms aren’t very good at getting ideas to senior leaders.

Researchers describe several interesting—and some troubling—findings:

  • Demographic and psychological variables—including age, gender, tenure, and education level—don't correspond with the quality of ideas. Good ideas come from everywhere in the credit union.
  • About 60% of employees indicated they had more ideas than what they ultimately communicated to their supervisors.
  • Formal upward reporting mechanisms are less efficient at getting ideas to senior leaders. But leaders who actively seek ideas, demonstrate openness, and follow up tend to elicit more voice.

The research highlights an instructive organizational metaphor: a web.

Most organizations are formally depicted as chains, with each level reporting up in defined ways all the way to a single leader or board. But information and ideas actually tend to cluster in webs, not chains.

In-the-know employees are the central nodes, and unconnected employees occupy the outer, less-informed reaches. Holding a leadership title doesn't push you to the web's center, and managers who assume their chain of command is ideally suited for delivering good ideas to the top will be frustrated.

While a chain sometimes works, it fails on the inability of any of its links to deliver important information.

The take-away: Effective leaders need to seek out ideas from all organizational levels.

How can credit unions create an authentic environment for employee "voice?"

Some do provide what Ben Rogers calls the lowest common denominator: an employee Web site, a committee, or an idea box.

"These are the least effective methods because they're passive. Employees have to seek them out," say Rogers, Filene's research director.

The onus should be on midlevel managers to seek information from employees, he says. Also, consider incentives for managers who do so and hold accountable those who don't.

Just collecting new ideas from employees won't have the impact that implementing them will. "Employees have to know that they've been heard," Rogers notes.

Two ways to get started, according to George Hofheimer, Filene's chief research officer:

1. Assess how well your credit union currently collects employee ideas and listens to employee "voice."
2. Get more people inside the web. Not everyone is blessed to have a boss who listens.

Train employees on how to effectively present their ideas and how to find managers who will listen.

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