Have you ever stumbled across a game-changing best practice that no knows about and wondered, “Why in the world are employees not sharing these great ideas?”
What’s holding them back? According to our recent research into innovation and problem solving in collaboration with the University of North Colorado, it’s likely that they are either scared or don’t know how. Let’s take a look at the two major reasons people hold back and what to do about them.
They’ve Been Hurt Before
Chances are, even if your organization has the most receptive leaders its employees have ever worked for, some manager in the past has squashed a great idea or even retaliated against them for speaking up. The tragic truth is that many of these memories are from the distant past. If you want to free employees’ best ideas from the prison of safety, it will take more than having skilled leaders who ask great questions; it’s also important to help employees overcome their FOSU (fear of speaking up) scar tissue.
If you sense that team members are reluctant to share ideas or speak the truth, start by including as much visible anonymity in the process as possible. Visible anonymity means that everyone knows other team members are contributing, but they don’t know who said what. This approach makes contributing feel normal — without the risks associated with raising what could be an unpopular idea or sharing a deeper concern.
One of our favorite techniques is what we call the fear forage. We discovered this easy way to create visible anonymity while leading an executive off-site. The group of successful senior leaders were considering a strategic initiative that would require an exponential increase in collaboration across departments full of people who were geographically dispersed, seldom worked together and had competing objectives.
We were working through an “Own the U.G.L.Y.” strategic conversation exercise but we had a hunch that we weren’t reaching the heart of the issue. The polite conversation was going in circles, and we worried that if they didn’t acknowledge and talk about that fact, their carefully crafted plans wouldn’t stand a chance.
We gave every leader an index card to anonymously write down his or her hopes and fears about the project, and we read them aloud.
The hopes fell into a few categories. They hoped the strategy would lead to increased revenue, improve the customer experience and improve the brand. They were united in the vision of why these goals were important.
The most interesting outcome was that every person in the room had the same fear: Could they count on the other people in the room to execute this strategy well? But no one had raised this issue. Two-thirds of our way through reading the fears aloud, everyone got the point.
If the senior leaders were this worried about one another’s ability to execute, how would they convince their teams to take those risks? Before they did anything else, they needed to talk honestly about their perceptions and concerns.
This fear forage exercise is a fast and simple way to bring the unspoken fears and concerns into the room.
They Don’t Know How
For some reluctant employees, it’s not that they’re scared; it’s that they don’t know how. Almost half of the respondents in our research said their organization lacks training in problem-solving and critical thinking. The courageous cultures I.D.E.A. framework is a great place to start.
If you want better ideas, help employees know what differentiates a good idea from a bad idea by giving them a few criteria. Tell team members you’re looking for interesting, doable, engaging actions:
Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results (e.g. customer experience, employee retention, efficiency) improve from this idea?
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 idea? How would we start?
Building a culture of idea-sharing takes time, but with deliberate focus, you can help even your most reluctant employees feel more confident and competent to share.