If you’re like many leaders with whom we’ve shared our new book Courageous Cultures, you’re mentally indexing your team and wondering if they’re capable of micro-innovations, problem-solving, and advocating for your customer. You want them to contribute, but they’re reluctant or clumsy.
You might be thinking about the “idea grenadiers” who present countless ideas, none of them quite relevant to your business. Or maybe you worry about the people who seem to have a “tell me what to do” attitude. Can they make it in a Courageous Culture?
Some leaders look at their people, shake their heads, and say, “They can’t get there from here.”
Sometimes that’s true. But often it isn’t. If you’re serious about building a true Courageous Culture before encouraging them to opt-out and find another job, we invite you to pause and think about how you can adapt your strategy for more opt-ins to help them engage and contribute.
How to Help All Your Employees Contribute
Let’s look at several types of people who are reluctant to share their ideas or present other challenges for leaders working to get more creative contributions from their teams.
Some people are idea machines—their brains work 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 starts tossing all his ideas in your lap, wants you to do them, but won’t do the work. These are the “idea grenadiers”—tossing ideas like grenades and then running the other direction.
When you’re working with people 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 number one strategic priority? Is that a project you’d be willing to help with?
They don’t trust you—and with good reason. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong. The three managers they had before this job abused their trust, told them they weren’t hired to think, stole their idea, then took credit for it. Now you have the same title and, fairly or not, all the baggage that comes with it.
Your number one leadership job with the silent wounded 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 an almost-courageous question and receive the answers graciously, with gratitude. Build up to deeper questions and respond with regard as the answers are more vulnerable. Celebrate people, generously give credit, then ask for more problem solving and ideas to better serve your customers.
And then there are the folks who suck all the air out of the room. They often talk so much, so loud, or so vehemently that others don’t have a chance to 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 manages everyone’s time to speak.
To help your oxygen suckers, start with a direct conversation. Privately explain that you are going to run meetings differently and that your goal is to make sure everyone participates equitably. Be specific about how you’ll do this. For example: “In some cases, I will time people’s comments to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak. I may ask you to speak after I’ve asked some of the quieter team members for their perspective.”
JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DOERS
Often people who want to be told what to do feel comfort in just following directions because they know that made them successful in the past. Through much of school and in many organizations, you can get along quite well by just following instructions. Often, they were hired for this same characteristic. 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.
For this group, there are three steps you can take. First, discuss 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 ideas.
40 percent of people surveyed in our research said they don’t feel confident to share their ideas and 45 percent say they haven’t been trained to think critically or solve problems. These are both common challenges shared by just-tell-me-what-to-do-ers. Here’s one of our favorite techniques to address both challenges.
Help them Share an IDEA
If you want better ideas, help your employees know what differentiates a good IDEA by giving them a few criteria to follow. When they can think through these elements, their idea has a better chance of being used and making a difference.
I—Interesting. Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results be made better by this idea (customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?
D—Doable. Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?
E—Engaging. Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?
A—Actions. What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?
With all of these challenging types, your approach and the conversations give them a chance to participate in a Courageous Culture.