How often are your employees speaking up with creative solutions, empathy for your customer, and problem solving? In too many businesses, the answer is “not nearly enough.”
We hear these challenges from leaders we work with all the time:
- “Why am I the only one who finds these issues? What’s wrong with my managers? Why can’t they see this stuff and fix it?”
- “We have so many ways for people to submit their ideas, why don’t more people use them?”
- “My direct reports are always out talking to employees, but all we get is a bunch of fluff.”
What’s really interesting is that when you talk to the front-line employees in these same organizations, you’ll often hear statements like:
- “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.”
- “They say they want our ideas, but nothing ever changes. I’ve stopped bothering.”
- “Whenever a big wig from HQ comes to do a focus group, my boss warns us to only talk about the good stuff so we don’t look like we’re complaining.”
People have ideas. Leaders want to hear them. But somewhere it breaks down. The sad truth is that leaders often think they’re creating an open environment that encourages employees to speak up, but are surprised when they learn that employees hold back.
We set out to answer the questions we heard from those senior executives, to explore the gap between leaders’ intentions and employees’ experience, and to find out, practically: How can leaders build teams of micro-innovators, problems solvers, and customer advocates? We worked with the University of Northern Colorado’s Social Research Lab to answer these questions.
The answers, it turns out, involve a significant role for training. Our research revealed three areas where organizations can invest in their people to build more innovation and problem solving.
Train Leaders to Ask
One significant reason employees say they don’t share what they think is that “no one asked.” An astonishing 49 percent of employees surveyed said they are not regularly asked for their ideas.
If employees don’t think you really want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move. Help managers surface innovation and solutions by introducing them to Courageous Questions.
Courageous Questions are the workhorse for leaders who are serious about getting their team’s best thinking. While most managers take a passive approach to hearing ideas (e.g., “My door is always open”), Courageous Questions require leaders to ask with intention about specific issues and with the humility to acknowledge improvement is possible. Examples include:
- What is sabotaging our success?
- What is the one thing that would most improve our customer service?
- What must I do as a leader if we are to succeed?
Train Leaders to Respond
Once leaders ask for ideas and even do something with them, if there’s no feedback loop, employees will assume nothing is happening. No one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued, so they stop trying and redirect their energy where they believe it will do some good.
Some 50 percent of the employees we surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously. And the #1 reason people said they would keep a micro-innovation to themselves (56 percent) is concern they would not get credit for their idea. Help leaders close this feedback loop by equipping them with the skills to respond well.
4 Ways to Respond to an Idea
These four categories can help managers to respond in ways that generate more innovations and solutions. When an employee speaks up with an idea or suggestion, there are four possible responses available. For each option, start with gratitude: “Thank you for thinking about this.” Then, depending on the idea, add one of the following. When the employee’s idea is:
1. Already implemented: Explain where and how the idea is in use and who the team member might talk to in order to learn more.
2. Incomplete: What additional information can you give the team member? What questions or obstacles do they need to address? Can you ask them to resubmit their idea with the additional information thought through?
3. Ready to be trialed and tested: Can you invite the team member to help with the trial?
4. Not moving forward: What considerations make the idea less valuable right now? Is there additional information that would help the employee come up with a more relevant or useable idea next time?
Train Team Members to Share
Once managers regularly ask for ideas and respond well to what they hear, it’s time to help employees contribute better ideas.
Some 40 percent of respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. You can help employees know how to differentiate and contribute a good idea by giving them a few criteria with the IDEA framework.
The IDEA Framework: 4 Questions to Help Your Team Vet Their Ideas
Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results improve from this idea (e.g., customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?
Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?
Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?
What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?
Building a culture of consistent contribution takes time, but with a deliberate training focus, you can help managers engage and reluctant employees feel more confident and competent to share.
Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership training company and the authors of “Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates” (Harper Collins Summer 2020) and “Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul” (AMACOM 2016).