Can the Suggestion Box Be Saved?

Anonymous feedback methods can make employees passive and paranoid. But a leader who knows what to listen for---and how to respond---can make them work.

Just about every place I’ve ever worked has had a suggestion box, and I have no trouble remembering where the box itself resided. The front desk. The kitchen. The break room. Places that presumably were high-traffic areas for everybody. What I have a tougher time remembering is what kind of suggestions were put in them, and whether they were ever acted on.

It’s a common problem. In the Harvard Business Review, business scholars James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris explain that anonymous employee feedback schemes don’t really provide the feeling of candor-without-blowback they strive for. “Allowing employees to remain unidentified actually underscores the risks of speaking up—and reinforces people’s fears,” they write. “The subtext is ‘It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization. So we’ve created other channels to get the information we need.’”

If you really want to know what people think about something, go ask them.

And if employees aren’t feeling paranoid by the suggestion box, they’re feeling ignored. Detert and Burris cite research of more than 3,500 employees at different companies that shows failing to respond to feedback “increased subordinates’ belief that speaking up was futile by 30 percent.” That has small-scale repercussions (“When is somebody going to replace the gosh-darned toaster in the break room already?”). But it can also have big ones. (“When is somebody going to do something about the bullying comments that certain staffers are making at meetings? Never? OK, I’m leaving.”)

And in the middle, feedback methods can create a hypercompetitive culture that leads to backbiting and one-upmanship. Last summer the New York Times reported on Amazon’s ruthless employee culture, and one point of contention was its Anytime Feedback Tool, an online system that in theory allowed workers to deliver kudos and suggestions but instead became a “river of intrigue and scheming.”

Trust is hard enough to find at work in the first place: a 2014 study from the American Psychological Association found that 25 percent of U.S. employees don’t trust their employer. That’s only exacerbated by what they perceive as an inauthentic tool for hearing out concerns.

So what makes for an effective suggestion box, physical or virtual? Unsurprisingly, it helps to actually respond to the suggestions, especially the ones that you’re not capable of acting on. In a companion article to the HBR article, Burris argues that “providing detailed explanations for why certain ideas are not feasible or publicizing the few that are pushed through to implementation can offset that sense of futility to some extent.” But that’s not the whole of it, especially if you’re shooting down most of the suggestions; you also need to create pathways for helping suggestions become ideas that can be implemented.

That happens, Burris and Detert argue, when leaders stop waiting for feedback to passively arrive at their desk and instead actively seek it out. “If you really want to know what people think about something, go ask them,” they write, which may the simplest and most commonsensical line HBR has ever published. (It may say something about the state of leadership that the point needs to be spelled out.) It not only gives you ground-level information about what their needs are, it also increases their willingness to speak up.

And you needn’t assume that employees will come to you with unworkable, expensive ideas. But they do want to see that you’ll deal fairly with the ideas they have. “Most employees understand that you don’t have full control over the resources or decisions needed to address their issues,” they write. “To determine whether it’s worth bringing things to your attention, they calculate how likely you are to represent their interests to the leaders above you.”

That dusty old suggestion box has its uses—not everybody is comfortable delivering feedback in the same way, so the opportunity to express a concern when nobody’s around has value. But in the broader sense, think of how you solicit feedback as a statement you’re making about your organization’s culture. Do you want to be known as somebody who only wants to check in on suggestions every so often, when somebody else brings them up? Do you want to see those around you slug out their grievances in the name of “offering feedback”? Do you want to be the organization that finds itself saying “no” a lot? Or do you want to be a place where people feel they can raise an issue and have it talked through? It’s not so much about the tool you use to get feedback—it’s what you do once you’ve received it.

What do you do as an organization to get suggestions from employees, and how do you respond to them? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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