I heard many years ago from a former boss that “the manager is always the last to know.” I never quite fully realized what he meant until I entered into my first management role! Whether or not you’ve lead a team before, you know what I mean. As teammates, we’re far more likely to chat about issues amongst ourselves than raise it with our leaders. Why is that? In this article, I’ll share some recent 2019 research showing how you can improve the likelihood that your team will voice their concerns sooner – thus allowing issues to be addressed more efficiently and ultimately providing more time for highly productive work.
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Albert Einstein (1879-1955).
A recent article published in the Academy of Management Journal (June 2019) by authors Hussain et al. took a closer look at a previously unexplored explanation for this phenomenon: the “bystander effect.” This is the notion that, the more certain information is shared among employees, the less any particular employee feels individually responsible for sharing that information with management. The authors theorized that the bystander effect is further amplified when certain employees within the team/group have high quality relationships with the manager (and adequate access to voice concerns. They conducted a correlational study involving managers and employees working in teams at a Fortune 500 company, as well as two experimental studies.
The results of the various studies conducted by the authors did, in fact, validate their theory. The bystander effect does create a diffusion of responsibility among employees, and even more so when one person on the team is very close to the manager. This could be due to the others assuming that the best connected person will pass along the info, or, they avoid bringing anything up as they believe that colleague could implicate them to the manager). So what does this practically mean for you as a leader?
Here are three ways to increase the likelihood that your team keeps you in the loop on critically important matters:
1. Avoid playing favourites. Do you have an employee on your team that you are much closer with than the rest? If not, is there a perception among your team that you do have a favourite? Be aware of your actions – perception is reality in the eyes of your team.
2. Tell your people you value them. During your next 1:1 meetings, ensure each team member knows that you value their unique contribution. Whether you legitimately have a closer relationship with one employee or not, the team individually needs to know you value their input.
3. Inquire. If you are creating an environment where the team feels they each have a voice, you can ask the questions you need to ask. If you’ve done right by points 1 and 2 above, this can mean the difference between getting an honest answer or someone just blowing smoke. Inquire!