How to Get More Respect From Your Boss With Less Work

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Research Briefs, a regular series, looks at intriguing research coming out of academia. This week: More experienced people speak up less frequently but have better ideas.
Paper: A Field Experiment in Motivating Employee Ideas
Authors: Michael Gibbs, University of Chicago, Susanne Neckermann,
Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Christoph Siemroth, University of Mannheim
Published: May 2014
There’s hope for all you baby boomers fretting that eager millennials will edge you out of a job: Experience matters when it comes to the quality of ideas.

In this paper, researchers had rare access to a database that tracked 5,000 ideas submitted by employees of an unidentified Asian information technology company. They found that newer workers may have a fresh perspective on the business, but it’s the longtime employees who have the primo ideas. Younger professionals come up with slightly more suggestions than veterans, but theirs are not as good as those from the people in the organization for the longest time. To measure how good a given idea was, researchers looked at whether the idea was implemented within the company, a sign that management deemed it good enough to try, and whether it was shared with clients, on the rationale that managers would be unlikely to present inferior ideas to external stakeholders.

The researchers also discovered that rewards (points that could be turned in for such goodies as a smartphone) inspired workers—especially lower-level employees—to pitch ideas. That sounds like common sense, but an effect you might expect rewards to have—that workers would flood the suggestion box in the hope of a reward, diluting the quality of the ideas—didn’t happen. Instead, idea quality was better overall, and incentives actually reduced the number of ideas per employee, even as they got more people to participate. What’s more, when the rewards went away, the ideas didn’t—the researchers suggested that workers keep pitching because they’d gotten in the habit of doing it.

It has become popular for companies to set up an online suggestion box for employees. The authors point out that one in three U.S. and U.K. companies use a “suggestion system” in which employees can contribute ideas, but little is known about whether this idea even works.

One clear benefit: A website where employees can submit ideas lets management track the progress of suggestions. Better yet, it’s transparent, letting everyone in the organization see the origin and progress of ideas, which helps stimulate employee participation.

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