Who are they? Employee perception of organizational decision making
In every organization, there is a mysterious group of people generally referred to as they. They are the people who make the decisions. They are the ones who, it is assumed, show up for work everyday with the main goal of making life difficult for rank and file employees. They are the people who set unrealistic sales and profitability objectives, who insist on project completion dates that could not possibly be met, and who decide to change the food in the company cafeteria or the parking rules without notice.
This paper looks into the question “Who are they?” It does so by exploring employee perceptions of organizational decision making. Do employees perceive their involvement in decision making differently than upper management? How do attempts by management to “empower” or involve employees actually affect employee perception of decision making? Do these efforts actually involve employees in the decision making that is meaningful to them?
Further discussion is given to the question of which people make up the all-powerful they, and why is it that employees believe this group makes all of the important decisions. And, why do employees continue to accept that they will make many of these important decisions?
Two main methods of research were used to develop this paper. One method was the research and citations from various works in business publications and scholarly journals, which yielded supporting studies and conclusions regarding employee attitudes on decision making and workplace relationships between employees and managers.
In addition to this research, the author developed a survey consisting of 28 questions in four sections. Although it would have been desirable to reach a larger sampling group, the survey was valuable for gaining additional insight on the perceptions and attitudes of employees regarding workplace decision making. This survey was distributed to a group of employees at two different companies. The survey participants had a higher than average level of education, experience, and tenure with their company. A broader sampling would give more credibility to the survey results.
Research published in various scholarly journals and business articles revealed a common thread of conclusions with regard to the ways in which employees perceive their managers and organizations as well as their (employees) degree of involvement in decision making. There are several elements that impact the perceptions that employees form about their managers as well as the degree to which employees feel that they (employees) participate in meaningful decisions about company policies, strategies, and objectives as opposed to basic decisions about the way in which they perform specific parts of their work.
Employee engagement or disengagement is strongly influenced by the degree to which they “buy in” to the company's priorities (Sull & Spinosa, 2007). The question of who actually sets a company's priorities is paramount to this level of engagement. If employees feel that they set priorities with little input or influence from employees, the degree of engagement will decrease.
Related to the previous statements, employees are more likely to carry out the commitments they make when these commitments are made voluntarily (as opposed to being coerced, or in this context, made for them) (Sull & Spinosa, 2007). This supports the concept that employees are less likely to support and deliver on promises or commitments made on their behalf by they.
The literature provides examples as to how other factors in the workplace such as interpersonal trust, empowerment, and employee perceptions influence employee perceptions of they. For example, Melinda Moye and Alan Henkin (2006) noted that trust helps to build a positive work environment and contributes to the effectiveness of the decision-making process (p. 101). Trust between employees and managers means that it is less likely that the they perception will exist.
Empowerment is a widely used term to describe many different approaches to providing employees with varying levels of autonomy in different areas of their work experience. While most researchers and practitioners agree that empowerment is generally a good thing and will create a better work experience for employees (Moye & Henkin, 2006), other research suggests that empowerment, as generally practiced, does not facilitate employee participation in decision making at levels that truly influence the strategy, priorities and objectives of companies (Delbridge & Whitfield, 2001).
Finally, it should come as no surprise that efforts to involve employees in decision making are perceived quite differently by management and employees. Research supports an easily reached assumption that while employees feel they have limited influence or chances to participate in decision making, the employers believed that they tried to encourage greater employee involvement and participation (Scott-Ladd, Travaglione, & Marshall, 2006). As with so many aspects of organizational behavior, the perception is heavily influenced by one's position in the organizational structure. It is highly likely that employers are indeed seeking more employee participation, but not in the type of decision making the employees want to influence.
It is important to note that the survey has a weakness in that the sampling was quite small, spanning only two organizations. The participants had a high level of education (most with post-graduate degrees) and long tenures with their employers (most having ten years or more). The survey data's validity could be significantly strengthened by surveying a much larger and broader audience. However, it is the researcher's contention based on experience that the responses gained from this small audience have substantial validity on their own merits, and that the larger sampling, while lending more credibility to the survey, would not substantially change the results.
The most important results from this survey support the concept that key decisions such as corporate strategies, policies, and objectives are perceived as managed at higher levels of the organization. The survey also supports that employees are less clear about who makes decisions of this nature, other than that they are made at a level above their immediate supervisor or manager. These results support the concept that the identity of key decision makers is somewhat vague to many employees, further reinforcing the idea that they decide what direction an organization will go, what strategies will be used to achieve the objectives, and how employees and resources will be allocated and compensated in the pursuit of these objectives.
The survey results supported the findings in the literature that employees are more closely involved in decision making within their workgroups. As noted in the literature, empowerment efforts tend to focus on decisions more closely aligned with specific workgroups rather than on higher-level decisions. The survey supports the concept that as the decision moves closer to the employee's work, the probability that the employee will have some participation in the decision increases. This in turn decreases the perception that they made the decision.
The survey also demonstrated that employees do sense that there are many decisions that are beyond their power to influence. “Often” was the collective response to questions such as “Have you ever felt like there is a core group of people at your employer who make all of the decisions themselves?” and “Do you ever feel powerless to change or influence things at your employer?” At the same time, the survey showed that there are also numerous instances in which employees feel they can influence decisions, know who makes them, and have their input considered as part of the decision.
Survey responses to questions regarding the level at which decisions are made within organizations further supports that decisions made at higher levels of the organization are less likely to have employee participation. Research also confirmed that decisions about the performance of the work itself (as opposed to strategy, objectives, policies, etc.) are likely to involve employee input (Belling, Biagoni, Butz, & Davenport, 2007, p 2). This research adds support to the theory that employees perceive that important decisions are made by people higher in the organization—people the employees may not know, and people whose roles and responsibilities may not be clearly understood by employees. This reinforces the perception that they make major, influential decisions.
The results of the researcher's survey work support a theory that most employees understand, or are at least resigned, to the fact that there is a body of decisions to be made in the workplace and the average employee cannot influence the decisions made by they. At the same time, there is enthusiastic recognition that, at some employers, decision making about the company's core business and operations are often left to the experts: employees who know the job, and share the company's values (Belling et al., 2007).
The they that is the subject of this paper has its roots in workplace conversations from earlier days of the researcher's career. On occasion, office conversations about sales objectives, corporate policy decisions, and even operational change decisions would attribute the decisions to decision makers collectively referred to as they. They (it was widely assumed) made these decisions with no knowledge of the realities of the situation, without empathy and without understanding the ramifications of these decisions. They, in the minds of those around the lunch table, probably made those decisions just to make life difficult for the people who actually do the hard work that make the company run. Blaming everything on they is easy enough when one is working in an entry-level position, a “doer” as opposed to a manager or other position that plans and assigns work, or sets objectives and formulates strategies.
Based on the researcher's years of business experience and many informal conversations inside and outside the workplace, they are managers, supervisors, directors, executives, and human resources personnel. They are invisible people who may or may not be known by name or title. They are most likely people who are well-known to the employees who are collectivizing the complaints about a decision; however, it is easier for most employees to assign blame to they than to identify single points of accountability, seek to understand the reasoning behind the decision, or perhaps accept some or all of the responsibility for decisions and objective-setting themselves.
A recent example of this phenomenon of workplace perception and casual conversation surfaced during a project discussion. This researcher, in the role of project manager, was having a discussion with a co-worker regarding some aspect of the project and related work. In the course of the conversation, the co-worker made a comment to the effect that they would want to have a particular task done as soon as possible.
In the immediate context of this research paper, as well as due to the ongoing sensitivity this researcher has to the particular usage of they in this context, the comment resonated. Clearly, there are one or more specific people, including perhaps the project manager, who would influence or decide when this particular task should be complete. The co-worker, if pressed for an answer, would probably be able to list at least some of these people. Yet, in the course of normal workplace conversation and backed by ongoing generalizations, this requirement was generated by they.
Reaching the ranks of management means to some extent that one automatically becomes they. This point was driven home for the researcher one afternoon several years ago when the team was grumbling about sales and profitability objectives. One team member was complaining about the objectives and specifically said they had set them too high. This researcher turned to the team member and said, “Who do you think they is? They is me!” The team member had lumped the researcher (their manager), into the all-encompassing pool of management-types known as they. This exchange also heightened the fact that the team member in the example did not fully understand who was accountable for setting those particular objectives—something for which both the team member and the manager were at fault. The manager should have done a better job of clarifying how the team's input was to be used, while the team member's response was caused by years of cynicism. For the researcher, this workplace exchange sparked ongoing consideration of this topic and how the generalization of upper management and certain areas of a company into a single entity called they manifests itself in the workplace.
Various studies support the concept that movement into management automatically pushes one into the ranks of they. This is partly because, despite efforts to involve employees in decision making, these initiatives have been shown to focus on production-level decisions that have little impact on increasing employee influence within the organization. In their paper, “Employee Perceptions of Job Influence and Organizational Participation,” Rick Delbridge and Keith Whitfield (2001) reference the work of George Strauss, who said that “only relatively unimportant decisions are made at the workplace level” (p. 473). Strauss goes on to note that (regardless of empowerment initiatives) the really important decisions, such as those that affect things critical to workers such as job security, are still made further up the organizational structure (Delbridge & Whitfield, 2001, p. 473). They go on to present research that argues that those employee empowerment efforts that do not expand employee influence on decision-making to more critical decisions do not really have much positive effect on the workplace environment (Delbridge & Whitfield, 2001, p. 475).
This in turn reinforces the perception on the part of employees that the concentration of decision making on matters that truly influence the employee experience in the workplace is with upper management—they. This perception, regardless of whether it is reality, reinforces an ongoing sense that becoming a manager automatically makes one a member of they, and therefore, not interested in gaining employee participation in decision making on important issues. Another issue to consider from a pure project management perspective is that project teams seldom request or develop the business cases for the projects that they are ultimately charged with completing, and also are seldom involved in setting the initial delivery expectations. This further reinforces a sense that they request projects and then set unrealistic expectations for their completion.
Why it Is Easier to Point Fingers than Take on Accountability
There are many factors that lead to a culture of they within organizations. One of the main contributors is the typical organizational structure within most companies that concentrates much of the key decision making at upper-management levels. Despite many approaches to employee involvement in workplace process improvement and decision making, the majority of critical decisions, those that truly affect or impact the environment in which employees work, their work structure, their compensation, and their organizational structure are still made by upper management (Delbridge & Whitfield, 2001, p. 474).
This leads to a culture of they. Because the key decisions are made by upper management with little input from rank-and-file employees, this reinforces the sense that they will decide everything and an employee has little influence. Why take on any accountability for change?
This is a difficult mindset to overcome. Not all employees have the combination of initiative, education, and experience necessary to recognize that personal accountability for change and workplace satisfaction is a requirement to affect this change. Most efforts to involve employees in organizational decision making—to empower them—involve limited scope, production-oriented initiatives. Studies have demonstrated that these types of initiatives to involve and empower employees are not as effective as those that attempt to involve employees in decisions that affect broader pieces of the organization (Delbridge & Whitfield, 2001, p. 473).
Management efforts to encourage employee participation as well as various empowerment programs focus on outcomes desired by management—things they perceive as effective and important to the organization and perhaps intended to improve employee communication, commitment, and efficiencies, but having nothing to do with expanding employee influence in how the organization is run (Delbridge & Whitfield, 2001, p. 476). Despite these efforts to involve employees, the fact that these efforts do not increase employee influence in the decision-making processes helps to reinforce the culture of they. Key decisions remain in the hands of upper management, making it easier to continue to point fingers at they rather than look for ways to take ownership of one's workplace situation.
Part of the issue is because of perceptions. As noted, perceptions replace objective realities (Moye & Henkin, 2006, p. 104). This means that even though an employee may be involved or consulted on decisions close to their work, when major, strategic decisions that impact their workplace environment and their sense of security are made with no input and no understanding of why they were made, employees are likely to maintain the perception that all decisions are made by they. This is supported by the researcher's experience with complaints regarding sales and profit objectives—objectives that the researcher's staff had participated in setting. Because so many important decisions in this particular organization were made arbitrarily, by a single person or small group, and with little communication as to the rationale behind them, it was often assumed that all decisions were made by they, even when the employees had participated in the decision to some extent. Their perceptions caused amnesia when the decision-making outcomes were announced.
Another factor that leads to finger-pointing at they as opposed to attempting to gain more influence or accountability in decision making is education and experience. It is the researcher's experience that more experienced and educated employees tend to have a higher level of what the researcher will refer to as “business maturity.” While there are always exceptions, the researcher's experience supports that the more time on the job, education, and business maturity an employee gains, the more likely the employee is to seek influence and accountability rather than complain that they make all of the decisions. This experience is supported by research that links influence with interpersonal trust, and education with both interpersonal trust and perceptions of influence within departments. Less education was linked to lower levels of perceived influence as well as interpersonal trust (Moye & Henkin, 2006, p. 110).
A final reason for finger pointing versus accountability is employee disengagement from execution. When employees develop a perception that they are making all of the decisions, there is often a degree of disengagement from their work and a decline in the sense of urgency. This drives employees to not to complete tasks and projects on time. A root cause for this disengagement can be traced to a lack of employee involvement in setting corporate objectives and strategies. This lack of involvement leads directly to a lack of connection between the employee's own tasks and projects and the execution of the company’ strategies in pursuit of objectives. By clarifying the link between employee work and corporate objectives and strategies as well as empowering employees with regard to their acceptance and planning of the work and tasks in support of these objectives and strategies, employers create an environment in which accountability replaces finger-pointing (Sull & Spinosa, 2007, p. 85).
Effects of the Culture of They in the Workplace
What happens when employees attribute everything they disagree with or do not understand to they? If the organizational structure and culture are truly the root causes of this perception, the high-level effects are doubtless detrimental to the welfare of the organization and its employees. This type of environment leads to higher levels of employee turnover, employee disengagement, poor project execution, and, over time, poor organizational performance. Companies whose structure and culture foster the they perception will perform poorly in comparison to organizations that have stronger employee involvement and transparent decision-making processes.
Change is also difficult in this environment. An organization that seeks to execute a new strategy or other change will find it difficult to overcome the sense that they are driving this change without seeking employee input or communicating as to why this change is necessary and beneficial. An organization can become trapped in the status quo—senior executives talk about new strategies but the firm cannot execute on them (Sull & Spinosa, 2007, 85).
In the culture of they, the reality or perception is that decisions are made by they in private, without a clear sense of accountability. As noted earlier, these types of decisions do not foster employee buy-in, because the perception is that “They” have committed the employees to achieving specific objectives without soliciting their input as to whether they can actually be achieved within the parameters promised (Sull & Spinosa, 2007, pp. 84–85).
There is perhaps one strange benefit to the culture of they. They serve as a lightning rod for employee dissatisfaction while the employees themselves forge strong bonds at the workgroup, project team, or department level. United in their distrust of they and the decisions and objectives that they set and make, project teams, and departments develop trust in each other and support each other, albeit at the expense of interpersonal trust in their managers.
Conclusions and Implications
The conclusions and implications for managers, project managers, executives, and organizations that want to reduce, manage, or eliminate the perception that they make all workplace decisions are many. Assuming that an organization wants to either foster more employee participation in decision making or increase awareness of who makes what decisions and what determines the level at which they are made as well as the degree of employee influence to these decisions, there are steps that can be taken.
A most obvious step (given the assumptions) is to provide employees with information on the types of decisions that they can be expected to participate in. It is beneficial that employees who understand from their date of hire (or the start of their manager's tenure) that they may be able to make most decisions on how they do their work, or provide significant input to departmental objective setting or review and hiring of peers. In addition, if they know that they are less likely to have little input on matters of corporate strategy and policies, the employees are less likely to generalize that they make all decisions. Clarity on the decisions employees get to participate in versus those they do not help contain or limit the formation of this perception.
As a practicing manager, this researcher has found that employees are appreciative of information, and form trust relationships with managers who are willing to share information on decision making, even when the decision is made beyond their influence or purview. Further experience is that sharing information with employees helps to create a clearer understanding of organizational decision making processes, even when facts support that decisions were made arbitrarily by a senior executive with little or no input from subordinates.
A good example is the average driver's reaction to a traffic jam. Most drivers can better tolerate a traffic jam if they know why it occurred. They do not like it any better, but they experience less frustration and confusion by knowing the cause. The same is true of organizational decision making: An employee will not necessarily like or support a decision made without their input, but will experience less frustration and confusion by knowing why the decision was made at a particular level and why their input was not solicited or considered.
Perhaps the most important and compelling implication for organizations, managers, and project managers is that elimination or at least reduction of a perception or culture of they is critical to organizational and project performance. Aside from the one possible benefit noted in the previous section, all of the outcomes and influences of this culture and perception are negative. Attribution of decision making and objective setting to they has a detrimental effect on an organization in ways discussed previously in this paper.
Controlling or eliminating the culture of they will doubtless have a positive impact on an organization's performance, long-term growth, and sustainability. Controlling or eliminating this perception will also reduce employee turnover and increase employee engagement and buy-in, further contributing to organizational performance.
In conclusion, they take on many forms. Usually, they never meant to become they—the culture forced it on them. Enlightened managers and organizations will strive to make the changes necessary to achieve a state in which they means us at least to the extent practical within most organizations.
Belling, S.; Biagoni, T.; Butz, D.; Davenport, W. (2007). Group 1 Unit 4. University of Wisconsin – Platteville BSAD3530/5530SU07 - Organizational Behavior. Summer 2007.
Delbridge, R., & Whitfield, K. (2001). Employee perceptions of job influence and organizational participation. Industrial Relations, 40(3), 472–489.
Moye, M. J., & Henkin, A. B. (2006). Exploring associations between employee empowerment and interpersonal trust in managers. Journal of Management Development, 24(2), 101–117.
Scott-Ladd, B., Travaglione, A., & Marshall, V. (2006). Causal inferences between participation in decision making, task attributes, work effort, rewards, job satisfaction and commitment. Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, 27(5), 399–414.
Sull, D. N., & Spinosa, C. (2007). Promise-based management: The essence of execution. Harvard Business Review, 85(4), 79–86.
© 2009, Shawn D. Belling, M.S., PMP
Originally published as part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, FL, USA