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Top bosses let workers express ideas

Sat., May 15, 2004

I remember when I first heard about this hot new concept called employee involvement 15 years ago. I was skeptical at first and wondered how you set boundaries and expectations. But the idea of sharing power and responsibility gradually started to appeal to me, and I embraced it enthusiastically.

Like every other management tool or process, involvement requires work. You must pay attention to boundaries, and involvement can’t ever look like top-level abdication. Trust on both sides is essential. When leaders and employees understand the goals and the rules, involvement and empowerment can make work more fulfilling.

I remember I became disillusioned when I realized that for a lot of executives, employee involvement was just a clever way to get staff to help in cutting jobs. I wasn’t the only one disillusioned. Many employees became cynical because as times got tougher a lot of managers and executives returned to their autocratic ways.

The executives who retreated into their cocoon-like offices and barked orders missed out on a lot of great ideas from their employees. Last week, I wrote about executives who mistake dissent and disagreement for disloyalty. It is just as dangerous when executives fail to enlist ideas for improvement from the troops.

I referred to an interesting new book called “Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations” by Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder. The authors recognize that a lot of companies ignore and suppress employee ideas, but they say their five-year study shows that a small but increasing number are soliciting and receiving big numbers of good, profitable ideas. The authors tell real success stories and offer practical tips about mining and implementing those ideas. I was especially taken by four ideas they offered:

• Cultivate a culture of ideas. The authors argue that the culture must create an environment in which ideas are a crucial currency. I always called this “making it legal for everybody to think.” In many companies it simply is not legal. Ideas are not welcome or appreciated. The direct result is you don’t get any. The culture has to welcome such ideas.

• Banish “learned helplessness.” The authors put a fascinating label on a behavior with which we are all familiar: employees come to believe nobody wants their ideas and that management would rather do stupid and silly things than get informed input. Inevitably, this fuels cynicism and ridicule.

• Treasure small ideas. Anybody who has ever been in an idea session knows the tendency is to attempt to come up with the “big idea” that adds big bucks to the bottom line or fuels a leap in market share. Robinson and Schroeder contend small ideas are often more valuable than big ideas. Small ideas are “a primary tool for organizational learning” and small ideas are the best source for big ideas.

• Recognition is important but rewards are dangerous. The authors write: “In practice, however, most such (reward) schemes backfire. The more money a company dangles in front of its employees, the fewer ideas it gets, and the more problems it creates for itself.” But, they add, “The most effective form of recognition for ideas is to use them and give people credit for them.”

Caring leaders will not react to every hot trend in business, but listening is no trend. Leaders should listen to employees’ ideas, incorporate them into the process, and respect the fact that people closest to the work have genuine insight that the “suits” never will.

Tip for your search: No matter the level you work at in your organization you have probably rejected other people’s ideas recently. Write down the last five ideas for which you had no time. Review the ideas carefully without arrogance or disdain. One of two things will happen. Either you will find an idea is better than you originally thought, or you will understand the disconnect that made the employee think it was a good idea. Follow up in either case and show appreciation for the idea.


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