Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2011

Managerial Practices That Promote Voice and Taking Charge among Frontline Workers

by Julia Adler-Milstein, Sara J. Singer and Michael W. Toffel

Abstract

Process-improvement ideas often come from frontline workers who speak up by voicing concerns about problems and by taking charge to resolve them. We hypothesize that organization-wide process-improvement campaigns encourage both forms of speaking up, especially voicing concern. We also hypothesize that the effectiveness of such campaigns depends on the prior responsiveness of line managers. We test our hypotheses in the healthcare setting, in which problems are frequent. We use data on nearly 7,500 reported incidents extracted from an incident-reporting system that is similar to those used by many organizations to encourage employees to communicate about operational problems. We find that process-improvement campaigns prompt employees to speak up and that campaigns increase the frequency of voicing concern to a greater extent than they increase taking charge. We also find that campaigns are particularly effective in eliciting taking charge among employees whose managers have been relatively unresponsive to previous instances of speaking up. Our results therefore indicate that organization-wide campaigns can encourage voicing concerns and taking charge, two important forms of speaking up. These results can enable managers to solicit ideas from frontline workers that lead to performance improvement.

Keywords: Communication; Employees; Knowledge Sharing; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Management Practices and Processes; Operations; Business Processes; Performance Improvement;

Citation:

Adler-Milstein, Julia, Sara J. Singer, and Michael W. Toffel. "Managerial Practices That Promote Voice and Taking Charge among Frontline Workers." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 11-005, July 2010. (Revised Sept. 2011. Best Theory-to-Practice Paper Award by Academy of Management's Health Care Management Division. Selected for Best Paper Proceedings of the 2011 Academy of Management Meeting.)