Now more than ever, you need every innovative idea you can find to pivot fast and figure out how to do the best you can with what you have from where you are. But with unemployment at an all-time high, it’s easy for your employees to default to safe silence.
Right before this crisis, my husband, David Dye and I conducted extensive research in conjunction with the University of North Colorado on what prevents people from speaking up and sharing their best ideas. And, we studied leadership best practices across a variety of industries on what it takes to truly build a courageous culture, where the default is to contribute– teams that come together and say “if we’re serious about this, we’ve got to solve this problem” and then do.
We found five reasons that people don’t speak up to contribute solutions, micro-innovations, or advocate for customers:
- Employees think leadership doesn’t want new ideas
Executives, managers, and employees described what happened when they approached their boss with a great idea and an executable plan to improve the business. In many cases, their boss agreed their concept would work and was doable, but then they were told to go back and do things “the old way.”
41% of survey respondents said leadership doesn’t value innovation, and 67% said leadership operates on the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it.”
Why this matters: 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.
- No one asks
One significant 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. And 35% of respondents said they were never asked for their ideas when initially trained for their role.
We heard from many managers who acknowledged that frontline employee micro-innovations and customer service enhancements are vital for success, but who lack any regular way to ask for ideas.
Why this matters: You might think you’re asking for ideas because you have an open-door policy or your company has a sophisticated suggestion system available. But that’s not enough for most employees to feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to contribute. Asking well requires a cadence of regular asking for specific insights and ideas.
- They lack the confidence to share new ideas.
40% of respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. That’s not surprising considering how often managers (not just frontline employees) said they were told to keep their heads down and just do their work:
“I didn’t hire you to fix our company.”
“It’s not your job to think about that.”
“I didn’t ask you for your ideas.”
“The problem is that we have too many ideas, I don’t want any more.”
Why this matters: It’s far easier to default to safe silence, and people remember the stressful times more than the time they spoke up and their idea was heard. There are a wide range of reasons why employees lose confidence, from toxic management behaviors to insecurities they’re bringing with them from home. You need to be deliberate in understanding what’s crushing people’s courage and work to eliminate the real and imagined barriers preventing the humans on your team from contributing their best thinking.
- Managers and employees lack the skills to share their ideas.
In many cases, employees simply don’t know how to speak up in a way that can be heard. “In hindsight, I really hadn’t done all the research.” “I think I came into my new role a bit too gung-ho, I had so many ideas … I think they thought I was cocky and critical.”
Interestingly, 45% said there’s currently no training available at their organization for problem-solving and critical thinking.
Why this matters: Even if you’re hiring experienced managers, chances are they haven’t been trained to think critically, solve complex problems, or to encourage micro-innovation and problem solving on their teams. And these skills are not intuitive for most people. If you want people to proactively identify and solve problems or find more innovative solutions, you’ve got to train them. If you want people to advocate for the customer, you need to give them the skills to know how to do that well from a balanced business perspective, and give them parameters to help guide their decision making.
- Employees feel ignored, so they don’t bother.
One of the most significant issues, even in some of the highest performing organizations, is that people are convinced their ideas will be ignored. We heard from many managers who echoed this financial services executive:
People bring up something once or twice. If it isn’t acknowledged then we’ll invariably come across an issue that’s been out there for a while. We’ll say ‘oh my gosh, why didn’t we see this? And we’ll hear back, ‘Oh, we did see it, but we told so-and-so and they didn’t do anything with it.’
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.
Why this matters: You may be asking for ideas and even doing something with them, but if there’s no feedback loop, employees will assume nothing is happening. And no one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued, so it’s human nature to stop trying and redirect their energy where they believe it will do some good. Our research is filled with examples of smart, creative people, even at the executive level, who made deliberate decisions to stop bringing new ideas because they felt it was a waste of time.
Start Here: Own the U.G.L.Y.
If you want more innovative ideas, a good place to start is by asking specific questions. One of my favorite techniques to use with our clients is what we call Own the U.G.L.Y.
Own the U.G.L.Y.” is a series of four provocative questions to brainstorm with your team.
You can do this exercise as a team, or break into sub-groups have each group take a letter and work on the related questions to then read out to the team.
U– What are we Underestimating?
Competitive pressures? New technology? Risk? The opportunity that we “don’t have time for?
G– What’s Gotta Go?
What are we doing now that doesn’t make sense anymore? What processes are more habit than value? What meetings are wasting our time? What’s got to go for us to be remarkable?
L– Where are we Losing?
Where are we still under-performing despite our best efforts? Why? Who’s doing it better? How?
Y– Where are we missing the Yes?
What new opportunities are yearning for our attention? Where must we invest more deeply?
This “Own the U.G.L.Y.” exercise is a quick way to clarify your focus and pick a good starting point as you incubate your Courageous Culture.
Written by Karin Hurt. Have you read?
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