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3 Managerial Traits That Sustain a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Posted by Ethan Burris

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Aug 21, 2015 6:07:00 AM

finger-man-451211_640Imagine that one of your employees is struggling with something at work. Maybe she has a process that’s mind numbingly inefficient, or regularly performs a workaround to accommodate a supply shortage. Maybe she’s having trouble balancing her work with her personal life; perhaps she’s a nursing mother, and she doesn’t have access to a private, comfortable place to pump. Whatever her problem is, imagine that it’s significantly decreasing her satisfaction and engagement with her job.

What does an employee in your organization do in this situation? Does she speak up and enact change, or does she let frustration boil over and leave the organization altogether?

It depends on your management team..

If your employees perceive you - and other leaders from the midlevel on up to the executives - as willing and able to enact change, they are more likely to offer up ideas for improvement. Take for example, that nursing mom. If she feels that her voice will be heard and that her leaders are willing and able to act on her ideas, she’s pretty likely to come forward with a suggestion to improve the work experience of the organization’s nursing mothers. If she doubts that there’s a real opportunity for change, it’s only a matter of time before she starts pursuing other options.

In our study “When Does Voice Lead to Exit? It Depends on Leadership,” Elizabeth McClean, James Detert, and I found three managerial traits that signal a willingness and ability to change:

  1. Management Team Change Orientation

    In many organizations, management teams are responsible for investigating strategic issues and crafting change. Employees are attuned to whether or not a management team is willing to give new things a try, and they’re more likely to speak up when there isn’t the restriction of a rigid status quo. A management team that is willing to implement changes inspires in employees the belief that their ideas matter. 

    Of course, it’s not enough for management to just listen to employees; they must also empower employees to turn those ideas into improvements. Doing so instills employee trust in the management team and makes them more likely to come forward with suggestions rather than exiting the organization. 

  2. Manager Participation in Decision-Making

    Before bringing a change to the manager’s attention, an employee will first ask themselves if the manager actually has the power to influence the decisions made by senior management. An employee will not bother speaking up if their leader can’t advocate for them – what would be the point? 

    Take, for example, our nursing mom. If she recognizes that her management team is open to change, she may come forward with an idea to convert a supply closet into a “Mother’s Room.” If she knows that upper leadership won’t listen to her manager when he brings her idea to them, why would she bother coming to him in the first place?

    To encourage participation in your organization’s culture of continuous improvement, you need to ensure that leaders from every level of the company have a say in the decision-making process. That way, your employees will know that if they voice their concerns, the message will make its way up the organizational hierarchy and changes can actually be implemented.

  3. Manager Access to Organizational Resources

    Organizational resources are any resources used for training, development, marketing, or new process implementation, and are vital for improvement within an organization. Leaders with access to this material are perceived as better able to make changes because they have everything they need to experiment with changes and work on improvements.

    If an employee looks at their manager as someone who has access to organizational resources – and, therefore, has the power to implement change – they are more likely to give voice to their concerns than they are to quit. Conversely, an employee who sees their manager as incapable of instituting change due to a lack of resources is more likely to perceive the situation as impossible to change, and so will probably motivated to seek employment elsewhere.

    Let’s revisit our nursing mother one last time. She knows that her “Mother’s Room” needs a chair, a table, an electrical outlet, and a refrigerator, at the bare minimum. If her manager doesn’t have access to the resources to make all of that possible, she’s more likely to consider looking for another organization that might be willing to expend these resources to address employee concerns.

As you can see, leaders - including middle managers - play a critical role in creating a sustainable culture of continuous improvement. Executives can tout the most convincing message about empowering employees to improve the organization, but unless they enable middle managers to enact change, participate in decisionmaking, and utilize organizational resources, it’s just talk. Organizations that empower managers in these three ways are more likely to engage people in improving their work, thus increasing their retention rate.


Ethan Burris is an Associate Professor at McCombs School of Business at University of Texas in Austin. He is an expert on human behaviors that impact the creativity, productivity, and innovative idea sharing of organizational teams. His research has been included in several top psychology and management journals, including the Academy of Management Journal and the Journal of Applied Psychology, as well as in the Harvard Business Review and the Houston Chronicle.

For more information about leading a culture of continuous improvement, download this free eBook: 

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