People Ignoring People

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MADISON, Wis.-A new Filene Research Institute study finds credit union management needs to better listen to their employees.

The study suggests "statistically...good ideas are just as likely to come from the front line as from managers, and that even job tenure and education levels are only weak predictors of who has quality ideas. It also shows that employees don't speak up often enough."

Chief Research Officer George Hofheimer noted, "Ideas come from every aspect of the organization and the researchers were unable come up with any correlation that linked specific types of individuals to ideas."

"Employee Voice and (Missed) Opportunities for Learning in Credit Unions" is the result of an 18-month study by Ph.D researchers Ethan Burris of the University of Texas at Austin; James Detert of Cornell University, and David Harrison of Penn State. According to Filene, the researchers solicited ideas from thousands of employees from 11 small to large credit unions and "then put a magnifying glass on how those ideas were treated by credit union leadership. The results are an in-depth analysis of employee 'voice' at credit unions."

Some of the findings were quite "troubling," according to the researchers, including the fact that 61% of survey respondents said they had more ideas than what they have communicated to their supervisors.

The researchers said credit unions are actually be a bit better than other organizations in processing ideas from across the enterprise, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Hofheimer noted that credit union managers are not actively trying to squelch ideas, but misaligned communication channels keep ideas from moving from the front line staff to executives.

"If you think your employees have good ideas, you have to have a structure whereby employees can share that information," he said.

Filene research director Ben Rogers cautioned CUs to not rely on suggestion boxes or Intranet features as they are too passive. Instead, he encouraged mid- and senior-level managers to work their way into central organizational communication nodes and stay "in the loop" by "talking to as many people as feasible."

Soliciting new ideas with monetary incentives can be helpful, but they can also create unintended consequences, such as a deluge of unworkable ideas, according to Hofheimer.

"You have to be sure when you're creating incentives that you're incentivizing the right behavior."

Employees need to also be trained in how to bring new ideas forward, explain them in economic terms and build proofs of concept. Ideally, Rogers said, every CU will also have a highe- level executive that is well-known for being receptive to new ideas if lower managers are not communicating well up and down the line.

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