Motivating Workers to Report Problems

Last Updated Sep 1, 2010 1:20 PM EDT

Researchers of organizational problem solving love to study hospitals. And why not? A mistake in communication could cost a life, so the stakes are high. There are also built-in internal challenges to overcome for effective communication, such as the status gap between doctors and nurses.

So when a Harvard research team decided to look at what motivates front-line workers to report operational mistakes and offer solutions, they studied data on 7,500 reported incidents in hospitals. The results should be of interest to any manager whose career advancement relies on keeping operational errors to a minimum.

Much literature has already explored why workers are reluctant to report mistakes, reasons that range from "it's none of my business" to fear of being labeled a troublemaker. The Harvard work identified two practices that increased employee incident reporting and solutions.

  • Information campaigns. "We argue that, just as public information campaigns can spur citizens to take particular actions, such as wearing seat belts or quitting smoking, organizational information campaigns that encourage process improvement can lead employees to speak up to report problems and propose solutions."
  • Engaged managers. Employees are more likely to move beyond problem reporting to problem solving when managers actively support them. "Managers make it worthwhile for employees to offer solutions once they decide to speak up because they anticipate responsiveness to their recommendations. "
Read the full working paper, Speaking Up Constructively: Managerial Practices that Elicit Solutions from Front-Line Employees for more detail. It was written by Harvard Business School doctoral student Julia Adler-Milstein, Harvard School of Public Health professor Sara Singer, and HBS professor Michael W. Toffel.

(Photo by Flickr user Unhindered by Talent, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.