View from HR: Successful managers nurture employee ideas

It is time for another tale of “stupid manager tricks.”

I flew through a Texas airport recently where the airline created some unexpected layover time. I decided to visit the bookshop.

A congenial desk attendant helped me search the shelves for a book. Periodically, a traveler would pop in and ask “do you sell newspapers?” Each time, the attendant patiently explained he did not stock newspapers, and pointed out another store with papers for sale. This happened three times in my short visit.

Another traveler stopped to ask if the bookstore sells greetings cards. The attendant replied, “No, and I do not know of anyone here who does. Wish we did.”

I asked him the top three requested, unstocked items: newspapers, greeting cards and battery-powered book lights. Has he told company management about these missed opportunities? Yes, several times.

The main thing

Management’s responses included: we are going through a merger, my boss’s boss just changed, it is a lot of trouble to add new inventory items, we have a new owner, etc.

The attendant is a helpful, positive employee. He wants the company to succeed. But he stopped making product suggestions because there was no indication anyone cared.

What is going on here?

Albert Einstein once said: “The main thing is that you keep the main thing the main thing.” This bookshop and its layers of managers may have forgotten the main thing. Instead, less important internal needs and corporate hurdles prevented managers from acting on good employee ideas and market data.

It seems odd no one ever asked the frontline of this shop about the inventory, about customer reaction and about how to grow the right kinds of revenue. It is even odder that when handed good data on a platter, the response (or lack of response) was so poor. Wait a minute, maybe this is not so odd. Does it happen in your business?

Sending signals

Maybe newspapers are too much trouble, maybe greeting cards were tried years ago ... who knows the variety of real and imagined objections. All this attendant knew was he brought ideas to his boss and the ball was dropped or deflated each time with (in my words) inward-facing, bureaucratic reactions.

Do you send signals to your employees to keep good ideas to themselves? Or, that change is just too hard? Or, that good-enough-is-good-enough? Or, that (worst of all) unless I personally get something for the trouble, why would I go through the hassle to try something new?

It is very hard to start a fire under someone and ignite a new flow of ideas. It is very easy to douse a fire already burning in your best people.

Managers and leaders who nurture employee ideas will be more successful managers. Maybe it takes energy and time to sort through the good and mediocre, and to communicate well with staff, but that is an important role you are paid to perform. Good managing is a difficult, rewarding, business-building role when done well.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit