It can be terrifying sharing new ideas if you’re a sensitive person, especially if your seemingly good ideas have been shot down. Even more so if those ideas were shortly thereafter presented by another more favored employee and enthusiastically accepted.
It’s essential for your managers to create a welcoming place for new ideas. Employees have to feel they have both a listening, receptive audience and a level playing field in which the ideas themselves—regardless of their origin—are valued. Without great ideas, after all, your business will cease to keep up with the times.
What Employees Want to Know
I found tips by David Dye and Karin Hurt on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Website on how to encourage employees to share new ideas. Dye and Hurt say that whenever you ask a question about how to improve your business, your employees have questions of their own:
- “Do you really want to hear what I have to say?”
- “Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?”
- “Are you humble enough to hear feedback?”
- “Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?”
Blue Sky Meetings
From my experience as an employee with many new ideas and an often-unreceptive audience, it helps to encourage new ideas in both one-on-one and group meetings. It’s often easier for a shy, sensitive person to float a new idea in a private setting with just the decision-maker, versus a group setting with competitive, more aggressive colleagues. A compromise approach is to have quarterly “blue sky” idea meetings with each employee and then with the whole department. “Blue sky” refers to limitless possibilities—ideas for what a business could do if anything were possible. Those ideas then can be whittled down and adapted to what is actually feasible.
Once the department head has met individually with employees to get their ideas, they then can hold a quarterly meeting with the whole team in which the ideas the department head thinks are best are shared. The department head should not share which ideas belong to which employee. The employees should be asked not to identify ideas as their own. This ensures that employees debate the value of the ideas, rather than the person tied to the ideas. Rather than make a decision during the meeting about which ideas to go forward with, the department head then can ask employees to e-mail them their top idea pick later. This ensures that group think will not play a role in the winning idea. The last thing a leader wants is for an idea to win because the loudest voice and most aggressive personality in the room pushed for it and the more passive employees felt compelled to then nod their heads in assent, rather than push back.
When you do not select an employee’s idea for implementation, it’s important to explain to them one-on-one why you decided to go with another idea. It’s even more important to thank them sincerely for their idea. Then, without disparaging the idea, explain why it would not work from a practical perspective, or why it might work, but not at the current time. Like all criticism, it also helps for the manager to let the employee know what they did like about the idea. In addition to protecting the employee’s feelings, explaining the pros and cons of the idea gives the employee valuable information. They can take what they learned about why their idea was not chosen for implementation, and come up with a more workable idea next time.
Ask Courageous Questions
I tend to be a naturally blue sky thinker. I don’t need prompting about specifics to generate ideas. Not everyone is like this. Dye and Hurt suggest asking “courageous” questions: “A courageous question differs from a generic ‘How can we be better?’ question in three ways:
- It has a targeted focus on a specific activity, behavior, or outcome. For example, rather than ask, ‘How can we improve?’ try asking more specific questions, such as: ‘What is the #1 frustration of our largest customer?’ ‘What’s your analysis?’ ‘What would happen if we solved this?’ ‘How can we solve it?’
- It creates powerful vulnerability. When you ask any of these sample questions, you are implicitly saying, ‘I know I’m not perfect. I know I can improve.’ This is a strong message—if you sincerely mean it.
- It sends the message that you are growing and want to improve. This, in turn, gives your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. It also makes it safe to share real feedback. When you say, ‘What is the greatest obstacle?’ you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.”
With the right encouragement and feelings of security—and a fair hearing—most of your employees can become great generators of the kind of new ideas you need to stay relevant to your customers.