Don’t Let Assumptions Limit People Who Can Contribute Great Ideas
“I’m looking at my people and I just don’t think they can get there from here.” Vivian was a gung-ho CEO exploring what it would take to build a more Courageous Culture (click to download your free white paper). She loved the idea of eliminating FOSU (fear of speaking up) and encouraging more micro-innovation and problem-solving, but as she mentally inventoried her team, she was concerned that not everyone could contribute great ideas and engage energetically.
Problem-solving and innovation certainly come easier for some than others, but it’s easy to make assumptions and miss people’s energy and potential. There are quieter voices you can amplify and embryonic ideas to nurture. The key is to give them the leadership they need to become effective team members.
How to Help Everyone Contribute Their Great Ideas
As you learn how different people are wired and what energizes them, you can meet them where they are to draw greatness from them. Let’s look at several types of people that present a challenge for leaders who want to build courageous cultures.
They don’t trust you—and with good reason. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong. It’s the three managers who came before you who abused their trust, told them they weren’t hired to think, stole their idea, and then took credit for it. Now you have the same title and, fairly or not, all the negative baggage that comes with it.
Your job is to rebuild their trust. This will take time, but once you’ve built that trust, these team members are often very loyal. Start small. Ask a courageous question and receive the answers graciously and with gratitude. Build up to deeper questions and focus on responding well. Celebrate people, generously give credit, then ask for more problem solving and ideas to better serve your customers.
To draw out the great value silent ponderous people can contribute, start by giving them time to think. For some meetings, this means giving them the main topic a day or two in advance and asking them to think about it. In some settings having everyone write their ideas first will give them time to process.
Another strategy is to clarify that you’re not asking for a 100% accurate answer. When you ask them for their best thinking at the moment or a range of ideas, it gives them permission to explore, rather than commit to something they haven’t thought through yet.
Just Do What I Sayers or Let Me Do My Thingers
You may have team members who are certain of their direction and methods. They’re often successful and just want people to line up behind them and do what they’re told.
When you talk with people in this group, it can help to frame the conversation in terms of their goals. If they want to have more responsibility or more influence, those are easy opportunities to talk about the people-skills they need to practice and demonstrate.
If they want to improve their outcomes, they’ll need people and their ideas. Two points you can emphasize in these conversations are: 1) What success looks like in this organization—is everyone thinking and contributing? 2) You care about their career and want them to succeed–and that’s why you’re having this conversation.
Just Tell Me What to Doers
There are a couple of types of people who consistently just want to be told what to do. The first group is the silent wounded described above. They have a “You won’t fool me again” mantra. As with other silent wounded, take time to rebuild trust with small steps that prove you mean what you say.
The second group of people who want you to “Just tell me what to do” are doing what they know has made them successful in the past. Through much of school and in many organizations, you can get along quite well by just following instructions. The challenge for these people is the same as for organizations everywhere: the world is changing and computers are far more efficient at being told what to do.
First, have a discussion about the changing nature of work and what it will take for your business to thrive. Next, reframe what success looks like for their role. In effect, you are still answering their need to “be told what to do” but in a way that asks them to consider the opportunities and problems facing the organization. Finally, equip them with the ability to contribute great ideas.
Some people are idea-machines–their brain works overtime to see the possibilities in every situation. Nearly every team is better off with someone who can creatively look at what’s happening and see opportunities to improve or transform. The challenge comes when the idea-person tosses all their ideas in your lap, wants you to do them, but won’t do the work. These are the idea-grenadiers—tossing their ideas like grenades and then running the other direction.
When you’re working with someone like this, it helps to have a direct conversation that calls them back to what matters most and asks them to engage. For example:
“I’ve noticed that in the past month you come to me with four different ideas about how we should improve security, revamp the training program, change our workforce management, and reorganize product management. There is merit in your ideas—and we can’t pursue all of them right now. Which of them do you think would help achieve our #1 strategic priority? Is that a project you’d be willing to help with?”
Most organizations have a schmoozer—everyone likes them and they talk a great game, but when it comes time to get things done, somehow, they never implement that plan that sounded so amazing when they presented it.
The challenge is that they undermine trust. Ideas they share lack credibility and they’re less likely to be entrusted with good ideas because they won’t implement them.
The best strategy with schmoozers is to ignore the charm and focus on the results. Healthy accountability conversations that help them raise their game will help restore their credibility. When you talk with them, be ready for an elegantly worded explanation for why they didn’t get it done. If it happens again, you need to escalate the conversation.
For example: “This is the third time we’ve had this conversation. Your credibility is at stake. What you said sounded wonderful, but if you can’t implement it, your team can’t rely on you and neither can I. What can we do to get this on track and completed?”
The final challenging type is the person who sucks all the air out of the room. They often talk so much, so loud, or so vehemently that others don’t contribute. Oxygen suckers can spark drama that derails a healthy conversation and wastes time on tangents. Oxygen suckers often lack self-awareness and don’t recognize how their behavior affects others. It’s up to you to facilitate in a way that allows everyone to contribute great ideas.
To help your oxygen suckers, start with a direct conversation. Privately explain that you will run meetings differently and that your goal is to make sure everyone takes part equitably. Be specific about how you’ll do this. For example: “In some cases, I will time people’s comments to ensure everyone has time to speak. I may ask you to speak after I’ve asked some quieter team members for their perspective.”
With these challenging types, your approach and the conversations give them a chance to take part. Some people will choose not to—and that’s okay.
If someone tells you they can’t perform at the needed level or they don’t want to adjust their style, thank them for their honesty, honor their choice, and help them with their exit strategy. Either way, you’ve energized your team to contribute great ideas and are on your way to a courageous culture.
Your turn. What’s your best strategy for encouraging your team members to contribute their best ideas?