Is talking to your boss bad for your voice?

The gimmick in The Voice is that the judges sit with their backs to competitors, only turning round once they have been seduced by the prospective songbirds. It’s the voice that matters, not who you are. In my last blog we showed this isn’t the case in the workplace. Those at the top of the managerial hierarchy are much more likely to say they can influence aspects of their work than those who are not in managerial positions. They are also more likely than the typical employee to feel they can influence the wider context beyond their job, such as the direction the organisation is going in.

Many employers recognise the importance of employee voice to engagement and motivation and implement specific policies designed to communicate information and capture feedback. The autumn 2009 CIPD Employee Outlook survey, which captured the data on influence, also asked employees whether a wide range of mechanisms were available for them to exercise their voice at work (see the chart below).

The question includes High Performance Working staples, such as team briefings and staff surveys, and communication channels that may not exist specifically for this purpose that employees can (and do) use to make their views known, such as staff appraisals or emailing senior management. Indeed, talking to the line manager and the staff appraisal are the most widely cited voice mechanisms. Most employees (65%) have more than one such channel available to them. But 10% of employees say their employer has none of these formal voice channels in their workplace and, in addition, feel that communication with management does not give them any opportunity to make their views known.

So how does the existence of these voice mechanisms affect perceived influence? The table below shows the mean difference in perceived influence – measured using a simple score based on ‘great deal of influence’ = 1, ‘some influence’ = 2 etc. – for employees who report having the relevant practice available, compared to those who don’t. Green cells are where employees who say they can exercise voice in this way have more influence; red cells are where there is a negative effect. Where the cells are coloured pale green or pink, this means the difference is not statistically significant (at the 5% probability level) whereas lime green and scarlet mean the differences are significant.

Employees who do not think they can exercise voice through any of these channels have, unsurprisingly, lower influence score across all six dimensions of influence. The significant positive effects for ‘other’ are an oddity: presumably the 4% of employees who went to the trouble of identifying another voice channel that was not on the list given to them must have thought highly of it.

Elsewhere it is notable how few cells there are where voice channels have a (statistically significant) positive impact. The opportunity to email senior management is associated with more influence over the way employees do their job, job responsibilities and the working environment and the availability of team briefings is associated with more influence over the former two.

Focus groups and suggestion schemes appear to have no impact on perceived influence. Collective voice – either through employee forums or (especially) via unions – is associated with lower influence scores.  With this data we can but speculate on precisely why this occurs. Employees’ feeling of powerlessness, for example, could explain why unions are there. Or employers could have promoted other channels of communication in order to sideline unions. Employees in unionised workplaces may simply have lower (more realistic?) expectations of their ability to change things.

As with the headline data, where employees think they have influence, it is most often about their job or how they do it, although employees seem to think that senior managers are prepared to listen to their views about the work environment.

Employees who say they can talk to their line manager – whether or not it’s appraisal time – are no more likely to feel they can influence their job or how it is done. When it comes to ‘big picture’ issues, like products and services or strategy, they report lower influence scores. Again, we can only speculate but potential explanations include disinterest (“can we stick to the task in hand?”) and the transmission of weary cynicism (“I’ve been telling those so-and-so’s this needs to be changed for years, nobody’s listening ...”).

Now it turns out that availability of voice mechanisms is related to managerial status. For example, 49% of senior managers and 51% of middle managers say they can email senior managers whereas the proportion is 22% for non-managers. We also might expect senior managers to take more notice of their peers and direct subordinates. In order to test whether there is any independent effect for voice mechanisms, regression analyses were run for each of the six influence variables incorporating managerial status, voice mechanisms and various personal, job and workplace-related control variables (see Note for techies below if you want to know more).

The chart below shows key results. The longer the bar to the right hand side of each vertical axis, the stronger the positive impact on influence. Equally, the longer the bar on the left hand side of each vertical axis, the stronger the negative impact. Only statistically significant effects are reported.

The message is clear. An employee’s position in the management hierarchy matters far more than the availability of voice mechanisms. Those in the most senior positions have the greatest influence. Interestingly, when it comes to influence over pay and employment conditions, junior managers and supervisors are no more likely to feel they have any influence than the people they manage.

Although the effects are much smaller than those for managerial status, multivariate analysis changes some of the results for voice mechanisms. The opportunity to email senior managers and team briefings now have positive and significant impacts across all six dimensions of influence while suggestion schemes now have some positive effects. Talking to line managers is now associated with a positive influence on ‘closer to home’ topics (job content and how it is done, work environment). The staff appraisal has a small, significant and negative effect on ability to influence products and services. Collective mechanisms (employee forums and union or other workplace representatives) have no significant effect either way on perceived influence.

So while influence is closely connected with power and status, employees see themselves as having more influence when they have opportunities to make their views known to management (especially senior management) be it through direct email or indirectly through suggestion schemes, team briefings or via their line managers. This highlights the importance of voice being a two way mechanism: managers must be seen to be listening to employees and taking their views seriously. 

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