Need workplace changes? UI study says to ask manager, don’t tell them
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Need workplace changes? UI study says to ask manager, don’t tell them 1
Prof. Daniel Newton (UI photo)

IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa study finds workers might see more success if they make suggestions to their bosses using a question instead of a declarative statement, much like on the TV quiz show “Jeopardy!”

Daniel Newton, a professor of management and entrepreneurship in the UI’s Tippie College of Business, says instead of saying, “We should have fewer meetings to boost productivity,” you should ask, “Have we thought about having fewer meetings to boost productivity?”

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“Sometimes when making a direct assertion, that comes across as a little pushy, like ‘my way or the highway,’” Newton says. “By framing those in the form of a question, employees are able to create this dialogue that allows managers and employees to link arms and work together to make the company better.”

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While many of us are taught that we have to speak up in order to get anything done, the study determined a less direct approach may work better, following the old saying about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.

“We think sometimes we need to be assertive and passionate and our perspective is right, but what we found is the opposite,” Newton says. “It’s good to not quite be so abrasive, a little softer, and we found that these effects were especially strong with leaders who are more dominant in nature.”

Newton and his research team used a series of surveys to question hundreds of employees and employers in the United States, the United Kingdom and China about how workers suggested changes in their organizations. He says the responses were the same from all three regions.

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“This isn’t just a phenomenon that occurs in one area of the globe but it’s across cultures and in a variety of different settings,” Newton says. “Whether it’s manufacturing or high-tech or whatever it may be, just talking to a lot of different employees in different sectors and in different parts of the world.”

The study found that asking a question of a manager instead of making it sound more like an order helps to empower that manager and it won’t force them into a corner.

“Instead of saying, ‘This is what I’m thinking,’ assert my stake in the sand, just being open to other people’s perspectives, being willing to listen to what other people have to say,” Newton says. “That goes for managers, that goes for employees. We could probably do a little bit better job of listening to each other and having positive dialogues that help solve problems together.”

Asking a question of your manager may allow the boss to think they played a role in creating the idea, Newton says, and it may also make them more likely to green-light the suggestion.

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