If Consultation And Worker Involvement Is So Important, Why Don’t We Do It?

Despite the known tremendous benefits of workers’ consultation and involvement, there are several reasons why some organizations don’t do it. However, there are things they can do about it.

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A lot of studies have shown that workers’ consultation and involvement play a big part in high-performing organizations. Consultation, when done properly, allows for tapping into the invaluable resource of experience, skills, and insight of workers in making critical decisions, improvements, and solving problems. In organizations where workers are consulted and involved, they feel valued and thus, take ownership, raise concerns, and offer solutions. This helps in creating a culture where improvement is the norm and improves overall efficiency, quality, and productivity in the organization.

Taking safety performance as an example, accident rates are lower where employees genuinely feel they have a say in health and safety matters (14%), compared with workplaces where employees do not get involved (26%) according to the UK Health and Safety Executive. There is a greater awareness of workplace risks, as employers learn about the risks through consultation. This promotes a positive health and safety climate and better control of workplace risks — very effective in 76% of cases where employees felt they were always consulted but only very effective in 40% of cases if they thought they were rarely or never consulted.

There is no doubt that it is the people who have been doing the work that have earned the right to have an opinion about it, and consulting them is a recipe for success.

Robert H. Chapman, the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller gives a very good illustration of this in his book — “Everybody Matters”. They were laying out the machine shop for spare parts value stream at one of their bases and had ten of their divisional presidents focused for the better part of a week on kaizen events to discuss how the value stream could be improved. They used their business experience to analyze the problem thoroughly, ran detailed routings for all the different parts, and put together a comprehensive plan only to realize that while the plan was great conceptually, it wasn’t going to work in practice.

They changed their approach to using the business leaders, but the resulting plan was also found out to be challenging to implement. It was when they had the third kaizen event involving only two business leaders and about ten people who were machine operators, forklift drivers, assemblers, people whose role was to “pick, pack, and ship,” and people who put together work orders in the office that they were able to come up with a solution that worked beautifully well. According to him, “the way they laid it out is exactly how it remains today, five years later. It touches those team members’ lives every day. They had wisdom that they were able to share to improve the process and create a meaningful, lasting, and more human process for everybody in that organization.”

Organizations that do not consult or involve their workers in decision-making do not just deny themselves of the tremendous benefits, but also put themselves at the risk of creating a culture where people do not feel valued in the organization. Therefore, the employees will conform to what they think the organization wants and are less likely to draw on their signature strengths, identify opportunities for improvement, and suggest ways to exploit them. Beyond this, it can build distrust in the workers who are the ones who eventually implement the decision. Hence, they may sabotage any improvement efforts, even when they are well-intended.

Despite these known benefits of proper consultation and the inherent risks of not getting it right, I have seen cases in different organizations where high-impact decisions are made without consulting with or involving the workers. I have been on a project site where the frontline workers complain of many procedures coming from the office. This creates more complexity for them, yet more procedures were sent to the site to “improve” the work process.

In another organization, the central project team was driving an initiative to improve a work process, yet the manager and workers in the department that own the process have no idea of the initiative. You can then wonder how they established what the pain points and improvement areas were. Studies have also shown that a major reason why big companies undergo re-organization without achieving the desired result is that the people who do the work and know best about the work were not consulted or involved.

Why do these happen? There are a number of reasons.

In a study conducted by Lee Ross and Andrew Ward, they established that all adults, especially high achieving ones, are subject to a cognitive bias called “naive realism” that gives us the experience of “knowing” what’s going on. We believe we are seeing “reality” — rather than a subjective view of reality, and as a result, we often fail to wonder what others are seeing. We fail to be curious. This, coupled with the fact that the default belief in some organizations today is that bosses are smarter and have all the answers, makes leaders see no reasons to consult their workers.

While some worry that asking for their subordinates’ opinions will make them look uninformed or weak, others believe that that they know their people better and can decide for them. Worse still, in some organizations, only inputs from the top are valued and input/feedback from lower-ranking employees are not considered valuable. Thus, some bosses see the workers as mere subordinates who are expected to do as they are told.

However, this is wrong most of the time. As seen in the Barry-Wehmiller example, it is the people who have been doing the work that have earned the right to have an opinion. Despite the skills, experience, or capability of the boss, it is the workers that know best on the areas to improve, and most importantly, they are the ones who will do the work. Thus, if they are not properly consulted, the decisions made will most likely not align with realities. Even worse, the workers will just do what the leader wants, thus creating the illusion that goals are being achieved while performance drops.

There is no doubt that most organizations know the benefits of proper consultation and plan for it. However, in reality, there is always the tendency to act as fast as possible without consulting or engaging the people because they think it takes too much time and decision-making will be delayed. Some people also think the process can be too hard and expensive. Thus, they act in what they think is in the best interest of the people, which as has been shown over time, is not always the case

There is a general belief in recent times that experts are the best source of ideas for improvement. Therefore, when organizations require improvement — either to introduce something or solve a problem, they call on expert consultants from outside to address the issue. This is not an issue when done properly as the external consultants would normally engage the workforce to have a feel of the situation and ensure that whatever solutions they come up with work for the people.

However, in most cases, the consultants rely too much on their expertise and discount the different types of experience that the workers have, which contribute to understanding a problem in detail and creating a solution. Thus, they might end up recommending a square peg for a round hole. It even gets more catastrophic as this can create distrust among the workers who see the management trusting external people for improvement opportunities or solve a problem rather than them — who are directly involved in the work and are in the best position to spot and pursue improvement opportunities or solve problems.

The organization might think they are consulting without consulting in the real sense. Every decision to be made will have an impact on some people, and these are the ones to be consulted. Sometimes, the right people are not consulted and this happens a lot especially with workers that are out of sight.

The means of consulting might also be the issue. Some consultation can be done by surveys while some will require actual engagement with employees. Another case is when consultation is done through employees representatives or unions who may have their interests separate from the interest of the general, or do not represent a group of the employees.

What can be done about these? I have a few suggestions.

In her book “Mindset”, the American psychologist, Carol Dweck identified two basic mindsets with which people approach their lives: “fixed” and “growth.” People who have a fixed mindset aim to appear smart at all costs and avoid anything that will make them seem incompetent. This limits the ability to learn because it makes individuals focus too much on performing well. However, people who have a growth mindset seek challenges and learning opportunities. They believe that no matter how good you are, you can always get better through effort and practice. They believe they can learn from anyone and thus listen and consider everybody’s opinion.

I believe the most important thing is for leaders in organizations to make a significant transition from being a know-it-all to being a learn-it-all — recognizing that there is always more to learn. They need to challenge their thinking and realize that they can learn from others and most importantly, that it is the people who do the work that knows the most about the job. These people have to be seen as valued contributors — as people with crucial knowledge and insight. This change in mindset is highly essential and it is the foundation on which other measures to enable consultation will be based.

The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, summarises it well, don’t be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all. The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all.

As I noted earlier, most organizations know the benefit of consultation and plan to consult, but in most cases, work gets in the way and they see it as taking time, hard, or expensive. This is why it is necessary to put structures or systems in place to ensure that consultation is done. This can be in form of regular surveys or as simple as suggestion boxes to enable you to stay up to date on what your employees want and need.

Other ways include inviting junior staff to business planning meetings, breaking off the ownership of decision making into pieces, or making the requirement for consultation a mandatory activity in making significant business improvements or change management. With this, you can be sure that there is no way significant decisions are made without having the input of the employees.

While consultation can be seen as a hard process that is time-consuming and expensive, there are readily available technologies that have made it faster, easier, and cheaper to engage in the right way. Several online survey options can be used to gather employees’ input promptly when needed, or even over time as an ongoing feedback mechanism from which you can gather insights whenever needed. Virtual engagements can be easily done these days and have been proved to be effective. This makes it easier to connect with any worker anywhere at any time.

There is no doubt that the people doing a job are the masters of the job and are key to solutions or improvements. Thus, in-house solutions should be the first consideration to solve problems or pursue improvement opportunities. These are the people who do the work, and they have earned the right to have a say in improving the job or solving a problem.

Nevertheless, the need for expert consultants will be required in certain situations. This should be properly done in collaboration with the workers. This allows for their expertise and fresh pair of eyes to leverage on the years of experience and knowledge of the workers to achieve better solutions that work and will be happily accepted by all.

The value of consultation will only be realized if the right people are consulted. It is then important that you ensure that you are consulting the right people — the ones who do the work or will be most impacted by the decision. In cases where representatives or unions are consulted on behalf of the people, you should consider that there might be employees who are not members or are not represented by the union. It should also be ensured that the interests of the people are adequately represented by the unions without any conflict.

The approach or means of consultation is equally important. It is necessary for organizations to, based on the type or depth of decision to be made, have different approaches to consultation. In some cases, surveys might be effective while some will require actual engagement with the people. The message is to always find the right approach to consult to ensure effectiveness.

You will only derive value from consultation and workers’ involvement when you act on the input/feedback from the people. You should consider their inputs in decision-making and provide them with feedback so they know they are being heard. This will not just allow you to derive value from their input but they will also feel valued and be more open to suggest improvement solutions and solve problems.

Safety professional, passionate about growth and sustainable development.

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