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by Karin Hurt & David Dye | January 10, 2020

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How often do your colleagues or employees speak up to share creative solutions to better serve your customer or improve a business process? 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’ve got 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 and leaders want to hear those ideas, but there’s a gap between those desires and what happens in many organizations. The sad truth is that leaders often think they’re creating an environment of energized engagement, but are surprised to learn that they’ve inadvertently built a culture of safe silence.

Safe silence comes with a high price tag: it stifles innovation and drives away customers. Problems multiply and employees lose heart.

We set out to understand the gap between leaders’ intentions and employees’ experience, to answer those executive’s questions, and to find out how leaders can build teams of micro-innovators, problem solvers, and customer advocates. We partnered with the University of Northern Colorado’s Social Research Lab to answer these questions and give leaders the tools to build Courageous Cultures.

The answers, it turns out, aren’t complicated, but they do require a change of perspective and training. Our research revealed three areas where organizations can invest in their people to build more innovation and problem-solving.

Cultivate Curiosity

One major reason employees say they don’t share what they think is that “no one asked.” An astonishing 49% of employees surveyed said that they are not regularly asked for their ideas.

If employees don’t think leaders want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer any. Your best thinkers will still be thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side hustle or planning their next move. You can help managers find innovation and solutions by introducing them to Courageous Questions.

Courageous Questions

Courageous Questions are the workhorse for leaders who want to get their people’s best thinking. While many managers take a passive approach to ideas (e.g.: “my door’s always open”), Courageous Questions require leaders to ask about specific issues with the humility to acknowledge room for improvement. Examples include:

  • What’s the problem none of us are talking about?
  • What is the one thing that would most improve success on this project?
  • If we’re serious about improving customer service, what’s the most important behavior we should stop or start?

Respond with Regard

50% of the employees we surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously. And the number one reason people said they would keep a micro-innovation to themselves (56%) is concern that they would not get credit for their idea. Help leaders close this feedback loop by equipping them with the skills to respond well.

Leaders can ask for ideas and even do something with them, but without a feedback loop, employees will assume nothing happened. No one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued. Most organizations don’t invest in the systems or training to cultivate ideas and help managers to respond well. The following response framework addresses this gap:

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 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?

 

Equip Team Members to Contribute Their Best Thinking

Once managers consistently solicit ideas and respond with regard to what they hear, it’s time to help employees share better ideas.

40% of respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. Help employees know how to find and contribute a good idea by giving them a few guidelines with the IDEA framework.

The IDEA Framework: 4 Questions to Help Your Team Vet Their Ideas

I-Interesting

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)?

D- Doable

Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?

E- Engaging

Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?

A-Actions

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 focus on your leadership development and systems, you can help managers feel confident to ask and reluctant employees feel more comfortable to share.

It’s worth the effort: the ideas your employees will share aren’t selfish (eg: kombucha in the break room). According to our research, the top benefits of their ideas are to improve efficiency in a business process, employee performance, and customer service. Combine that with improved employee retention and you’ve you’re on your way to outperforming the competition with an advantage they can’t match – your people.


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).

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