Employee Input: A Double-edged Sword

I recently observed a well-meaning manager dealing with the dangerous area of collecting employee input.  An old and dingy office space was being remodeled, and this  manager reasoned that the people who were housed in the area might want some say in how it was to be reconfigured.  And they sure did!  Their office environments had been an issue for years.  They relished what they saw as the opportunity to redesign it.

Without any specific guidance from the manager, an ad-hoc employee committee sprang up. Guess who ended up leading it?  You’ve got it.  The most disgruntled and outspoken employees grabbed the reins and spent a significant amount of time researching office lay-outs, equipment needed, flooring, and even furnishings.  The manager was somewhat aware that there was a “committee,” but he didn’t give it much thought.  In the meantime,  the Office Design Committee met regularly, contacted suppliers, and previewed available equipment and furniture.  All without a budget.

After several weeks, the Office Design Committee came back to the manager with a request to present their work to him. He scheduled a slot on his calendar, and was a little surprised when the group asked to meet in the conference room rather than in his office.  And his surprise only increased once he entered the conference room.  He was presented with layout diagrams, swatches of paint color and fabric, and the full-color brochures of three or four potential vendors.  He had a couple of options as to what to do next, and he unfortunately continued to make some basic mistakes.

This manager was surprised, even blind-sided by the committee’s results. That should never have happened, and it would not have happened had he handled the remodeling communication appropriately in the first place.  When presented with the committee’s recommendations, the manager became visibly irritated.  He cut the meeting short as soon as he saw the costs this group projected for the project.  And the committee heard no more about the issue until they came in one morning to newly painted walls and different colored counter tops and cupboards in their work areas.  And none of the changes actually made were ones recommended by the committee!  This manager not only lost the opportunity to gain valuable input, he actually alienated his team by gathering far more input than he wanted and then ignoring it.  The improvements could have had a very positive outcome.  Instead, the employees looked at the “improvements” as one more evidence that management did not respect their needs, opinions, or intelligence.  And who can blame them for that attitude?

Some obvious mistakes were made here. First, the manager should have talked to the group and explained what the boundaries of the remodel were to be.  If a dollar amount was known, it should have been communicated.  If particular parts of the office structure were targeted for upgrade, the manager should have communicated that.  Perhaps there were some environmental issues that needed addressing.  Or the manager may have known that the configuration had to follow the current “footprint” of the office space in some way.  He may have been aware of coming changes in equipment which should have been reflected in the design.

Secondly, he should not have allowed the leadership of this group to default to the chronically disgruntled in his office! If a sub-team was needed to gather information, that smaller group should have been representative of the larger group.  Once they had gathered recommendations which were within budget and other stated constraints, they should have communicated that information back to the larger group for their input.  I’ve noticed that many times a small group will get sort of stymied or stumped by a problem simply because they’ve been looking at it so long.  A fresh pair of eyes may be just what they need to generate some new ideas and move the project along.

Next, the manager should listen carefully to the final recommendations of the group and ask for whatever additional information he may need to make a final decision. If some ideas cannot be implemented, he should respectfully explain why.  And he should implement the ones which can be implemented.

Finally, the work of the committee should be recognized. They should be thanked for their contributions and their efforts.  I once worked with a parent volunteer group who designed and built a beautiful playground for a non-profit agency in the area.  The agency would never have been able to afford the quality of such an addition without all the talented parent volunteers.  But the agency also didn’t have money for a big banquet or fancy thank-you gifts.  So they bought some toy hard-hats and shovels, spray painted them gold, and added some ribbon and glitter.  These very inexpensive thank-yous are still cherished by the parents today.  Some similar thank-you gifts could be extremely effective for the group of employees who did the leg work on the office remodel, too.

Now let’s think about the difference between how this project was handled in the first group and in the second. In the first, the manager ends up looking like a despot, and the employees are very unhappy with their “new and improved” office space.  In the second situation, employees are proudly moving into “their” office space.  They fully accept the reality that they couldn’t change each and every thing they wanted to, but they were able to make some significant improvements and stay within budget.  Quite a difference, isn’t it?

Categories Business, Management

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