Employees have great ideas. After all, they see customer frustrations, opportunities and needs up close, every day. They see things managers have long forgotten and that leaders may never see.
So what keeps these great ideas from freely flowing straight into practice and profitability?
Past experience: An employee who is shut down by a clumsy manager will never forget the experience. Would you? Why risk a repeat? Managers fortunate enough to be trusted with an idea must ensure the exchange encourages future ideas, even if todays idea is not used.
Why employees feel rejected
Pride and embarrassment: Most people are risk averse. Even if no one has shut them down before, their concern is real. More importantly, most people fear looking stupid or being asked to stretch beyond their own comfort zone. An idea could mean they will have to explain it, give a presentation or risk difficult questions on unfamiliar topics. Public speaking is the number one human fear (more so than death).
Wasted time: Another way managers teach employees to hoard ideas is the black hole. An idea might be respectfully reviewed and a meeting held. The employee hears nothing more. Would you contribute an idea again?
Business direction: Employees with no way to understand the business strategy and direction have little chance of contributing good ideas. Sure, they may see a good way to pay vendors sooner, but that is not helping their company grow and succeed. A new way to identify at-risk customers based on payment patterns could well support the strategy of improving retention, but only if they understand that business strategy.
My idea was rejected: Face it most ideas are bad ideas. It is the nature of innovation and change. You have to sort through lots of bad to find the good and the great. This is true for leaders, managers and the brand new hire in accounting. The chance is high than an employees idea will be rejected or severely modified. People unaccustomed to this make it feel much too personal. Rejection is a chance to encourage more ideas.
A magic formula
Maximizing idea flow in any organization is a magical mixture of who you hired, how you treat them, what you expect, how you reward them and how much information you provide. Do you value innovation? Is there public praise and private reward for positive changes? Can your managers accept the fact they do not know everything? Are you willing to share your business challenges with employees?
There is no right or wrong. If you make buggy whips and enjoy declining markets, then lock your office door and post a sign like this: Got a good idea? Call your stockbroker.
If you feel pressure every day from competition known and unknown, and wonder how you will ever be able to get and keep the best people, put some time into this challenge. How can you make it easy and pleasurable to bring forth valuable ideas? Employers that reduce natural barriers to idea generation are three steps ahead in the battle to differentiate, succeed and profit.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.