• 25 Aug 2010
  • Working Paper

Managerial Practices That Promote Voice and Taking Charge among Frontline Workers

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

Executive Summary — How can front-line workers be encouraged to speak up when they know how to improve an organization's operation processes? This question is particularly urgent in the US health- care industry, where problems occur often and consequences range from minor inconveniences to serious patient harm. In this paper, HBS doctoral student Julia Adler-Milstein, Harvard School of Public Health professor Sara Singer, and HBS professor Michael W. Toffel examine the effectiveness of organizational information campaigns and managerial role modeling in encouraging hospital staff to speak up when they encounter operational problems and, when speaking up, to propose solutions to hospital management. The researchers find that both mechanisms can lead employees to report problems and propose solutions, and that information campaigns are particularly effective in departments whose managers are less engaged in problem solving. Key concepts include:

  • Front-line workers offer more solutions to operational problems in departments whose managers are more engaged in problem solving.
  • Information campaigns that promote process improvement generate more solutions from front-line workers, especially from workers whose managers are less routinely engaged in problem solving.
  • Efforts at the organizational level can compensate for managers who cannot or do not create an environment that inspires front-line workers to speak up.

Author 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.

Paper Information