Building Teams that Speak Up and Solve Problems

People have ideas. Leaders want to hear them. But somewhere it breaks down.

In our work with organizations of all sizes, we’ve encountered a perplexing gap that stymies consistent innovation and impedes customer and employee experiences. We hear frustrated senior leaders ask, “Why am I the only one who finds these problems? What’s wrong with my managers? Why can’t they see this stuff and fix it?” or “We’ve got so many ways for people to submit their ideas, why don’t we have teams that speak up and solve problems?”

Do you know what’s really interesting?

When you talk to the front-line employees in these same organizations, you’ll often hear statements like this: “The only way to get the customer what they need is to use this workaround. I’ve been doing it for years, which is why my customers love me. It’s not standard procedure, though, so I keep my head down and hope my boss doesn’t notice.” Or this: “They say they want our ideas, but nothing ever changes. I’ve stopped bothering.”

People have ideas. Leaders want to hear them. But somewhere it breaks down.

Why the Gap?

We conducted quantitative and qualitative research into why this disconnect exists and what great organizations can do to overcome it. Some of the key reasons people don’t speak up with ideas and solutions are that leaders don’t ask (49 percent of respondents), people think their ideas won’t be taken seriously (50 percent), people lack confidence to share (40 percent), and don’t receive training in critical thinking and problem solving (45 percent).

Managers and team leaders are at the heart of the breakdown between senior leaders’ desire for contribution and front-line employees’ discouragement. Typically, there are three reasons managers and team leaders don’t support a courageous culture:

  1. Lack of training: They simply don’t know how to cultivate a solution-focused team. Many managers aren’t trained in leadership fundamentals, much less in how to foster an environment where everyone speaks up and solves problems.
  2. Insecurity: We regularly hear from people who tell us that their immediate supervisors suppress information for fear it will make them look bad.
  3. Conflicting expectations and accountability: Faced with getting results today, many managers don’t know what to do with all the ideas that might come their way. Their visible goals appear to conflict with having a team of people who speak up. As one manager told us, “What I need is for people to follow my directions. I know how this works. If they’ll just do that, we’ll make our targets.” When managers take this approach, they’re often focused on short- term success and can’t see the long-term benefit of teams that solve problems, constantly improve, and take initiative to serve the customer.

How to Help Your Managers Cultivate Teams that Speak Up and Solve Problems

You can help managers build teams that speak up and solve problems by equipping them with three specific skills.

  1. Navigate the Narrative

First, help leaders find their courage. In order for employees to speak up with confidence, they need to see their immediate supervisor doing it too. For managers that struggle with this, “a courage map” where they tap into their own history of courageous actions can help them rediscover their courage and their personal leadership values. Start by asking, “Thinking of your career, what has been your most courageous act?”

When managers are insecure, there’s a story that’s causing it. The story may be may be rooted in a real present-day fear. A “fear forage” can help to surface these fears by having teams of leaders anonymously submit their hopes and fears related to an initiative. Aggregate the hopes and fears and discuss what’s causing them and how the team can work through them to ensure success.

Getting the fears into the room reduces their grip, helps everyone recognize they’re not alone, and gives the team a chance to directly solve the biggest challenges. When we do this exercise with executive teams, it often turns out that everyone shares a similar fear—which reduces anxiety and makes it easier to solve.

  1. Cultivate Curiosity

Next, give your managers the tools to draw out great ideas from their teams. One practical way to do this is with “courageous questions.”

Courageous questions differ from an insipid “I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can improve” by making specific, vulnerable queries that prompt authentic responses.

Examples of courageous questions include:

  • What is our customer’s #1 frustration right now?
  • What is the one thing that will sabotage this project if we don’t address it?
  • What’s one policy we have that really sucks?

When a team member shares one thought, that opens the door to follow up and see what other answers they might have.

  1. Respond with Regard

As teams speak up to solve problems and share ideas, their leaders’ responses will either build momentum or quash it. But when confronted with a half-baked or ill-informed idea, many leaders get frustrated and give up.

The solution is to respond with regard. Whether an idea has immediate merit or not, the employee took the time to think about and share their idea, and that’s worth reinforcing.

There are three elements to respond with regard:

  1. Gratitude: Thank the person for their effort
  2. Information: Give the person relevant data, priorities, or constraints
  3. Invitation: Invite them to continue thinking and contribute ideas in light of the information they’ve received

For instance: “Thank you for thinking about how we can improve our customer acquisition process. Right now, our top priority is customer experience and retention. I’d love to get your thoughts on that, as well.”

As managers practice these skills, they will grow teams that speak up and solve problems. This creates an interesting paradox: In courageous cultures, where speaking up is the norm, it takes less individual courage for an employee to raise their hand. But someone has to take that first step. These skills give managers the confidence they need to lead a courageous culture.

Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm and the authors of “Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins, July 2020).