How to Solicit and Value Employee Input
A young priest asked his bishop, “May I smoke while praying?” The answer was an emphatic “No!”
Later, after seeing an older priest puffing on a cigarette while praying, the younger priest scolds him, “You shouldn’t be smoking while praying! I asked the bishop, and he said I couldn’t do it!”
“That’s odd,” the older priest replies. “I asked the bishop if I could pray while I’m smoking, and he told me that it was okay to pray at any time!”
As with most questions, framing is everything, but this rings especially true when it comes to seeking and incorporating employee input into organizational initiatives, priorities and decision-making. Framing is even more important when the decisions are focused on changes to organization structure, compensation, job duties, reporting structures, etc.
Framing, in this context, means being clear about the input you’re actually requesting and how you and other decision-makers will be using it. The “how” includes providing the decision-making timeline (when will the final decision be made and communicated to the organization and any pertinent steps leading up to the final decision), who will be involved in the final decision (those responsible for representing different points of view and debating options) and who ultimately owns the final decision (where the buck stops, generally the CEO).
If you are going to ask employees to invest time and thought in providing input that will guide the final decision, it is only fair to be clear on the boundaries for that input. For example, if a decision has already been made that a variable compensation plan will be implemented to replace an existing non-variable compensation plan, don’t ask for input on compensation in general.
Identify the issues that are still open for consideration that will directly affect employees and frame the request for input around those specific issues.
I find it helpful to create three lists when framing a request for employee input:
- List the related decisions that have already been made
- List the known constraints (the non-negotiables) that need to be accepted – you don’t want to open these for debate if there is no debate to be had
- List those areas where you are seeking input that will affect the final decision
These three lists guide the framing of your request for input. “This is what has already been decided, these are the constraints we need to accept, and these are the open issues that will benefit from your input.”
Once the input being requested is clearly framed, the next step is to inform employees about the decision-making process. You are about to introduce ambiguity – and potentially stress – into an employee’s world that felt predictable and secure prior to receiving your request for input on a topic that clearly screams “change!” Providing a timeline that includes key steps in the decision-making process, a description of how employee input will be used to inform the final decision, and clarifying who will be making the final decision are all things that you can commit to now, and each of them provides some level of certainty to counter the uncertainty that accompanies change.
The request for input has been made, a timeline and key steps in the process have been shared, and everyone knows who is accountable for the final decision and when it will be announced. I mentioned ambiguity and uncertainty in the previous paragraph – don’t downplay the insecurity you just introduced by asking for input on an executive level decision. These decisions affect employees, and employees are well aware of this.
The most important thing to do is to honor the process you laid out in your request for input. Use the input you receive as a basis for final decision-making, commit to the timeline, and announce when you said you were going to announce. Ensure that you demonstrate how employee input was used to inform the final decision. If you can’t, then your request for input was either insincere, poorly framed, or both.
My short list of best practices for employee involvement in organizational decision-making:
- This is an organizational capacity to build, not a test of employee resilience. If your organization isn’t accustomed to transparency and participatory decision-making, don’t start with an incredibly sensitive, scary topic (such as downsizing or salary cuts) to introduce the practice.
- Be honest with yourself about what you have already decided – in your head and in your gut. If your mind is made up about certain aspects of the pending change, be specific in calling those out and establishing them as “off the table”.
- Take the time to provide the context necessary for employees to understand the request when framing the “bigger picture”. You carry with you a different view of the company as a result of your position and responsibilities. Share this view with employees as part of your framing.
- Be mindful of the information gap, which presents itself as ambiguity, that exists in the organization during the decision-making process. Communicating consistently and clearly per the timeline you have established will help to ease the organizational tension that accompanies ambiguity.
- Remember that your role isn’t to pursue consensus. You need to make the best decision on behalf of the company, its customers and its employees. Make the hard decisions, but communicate them with compassion.