Cultivating Good Employee Ideas

Nov 30th, 2012 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

In my office I have a poster that someone gave me when I became a manager. It’s titled “101 Ways To Say NO.” The content is written to be funny, but I’m not sure that the overall theme is off-base. I don’t think that the automatic answer to every request you receive from an employee should be “no,” but it can become a serious problem if you don’t have a defined process for dealing with requests.

I also have a mock urn that reads “Ashes of Problem Employees.” That one is just a joke.

You can look at employee requests and divide them into categories. One is the “can I have” category, like when one of your kids asks, “Can I have a soda?” ten minutes before bedtime. That kind of question is relatively easy to answer. Usually you can quickly weigh the pros and cons and give a yes or no answer.

The really dangerous category is the request that takes the “you should” form, as in: “You should start a customer appreciation program.” These requests are usually veiled as helpful suggestions, and they are often actually good ideas that an employee has heard about or thought up, and sometimes they would help the company. The problem is, if you are in management, you are probably about six inches underwater already and paddling as fast as you can. If you care about your job, the company you work for and your contribution to the company — and if your employees pick up on that — you can easily become a dumping ground for ideas and suggestions.

So on one hand, you don’t want to discourage good ideas, but on the other hand, you wouldn’t have the time to wedge in another good idea and give it even a half-assed attempt. What do you do?

A related trap you can fall into as a manager is thinking that you have to do everything yourself. You might think you’re the only one with the means, or the ability, or the knowledge. If you think like this, you need to step outside and take a breath of fresh air. You are trapped in a sealed environment, breathing in mostly your own exhaled carbon dioxide. You’re probably hyperventilating and don’t even know it.

Even if the employee who comes to you with the “you should” idea is scatter-brained, half-asleep and self-destructive, the fact that they approached you with the idea means that somewhere inside them is the seed of proactivity. After all, they didn’t just sit on the idea or tell someone who really can’t do anything about it. The best way to measure the projected potential of that seed is to engage them in the idea. Don’t try to be clever about it. Ask them to explain to you what they mean. See if they have actually thought it out in any detail. Then when you can see that they have, ask them what is the first step they are going to take. You’re just brainstorming with them, hashing out an idea – remove the obstacles, whether it be lack of resources, no authorization, unclear purpose, whatever. Assume that by coming to you with the idea, they want to take the lead. You might be surprised at their reaction. They could completely abdicate. (“Oh, I didn’t mean me.”) They might also be heartened that you see them as someone who could actually pull it off. They might be looking for a chance to make their mark, and they won’t want to admit that they just wanted you do to all the work.

What does this tactic accomplish? First of all, you are preventing them from dumping the project or task onto you, where it is likely to collapse you or whither into nothing or tumble off at the next sharp corner. Second, you’re tapping into the brainpower of another individual. Third, you’re giving someone an opportunity to grow, to contribute, to expand their influence. And fourth, possibly most important, you’re giving the idea itself the best chance to develop.

If you receive a neutral or positive response to your question – what is the first step they are going to take – agree on a task. Choose something that you think they can pull off, that might stretch their comfort zone without snapping it, that you can sign off on without putting yourself in mortal danger, and send them into the hallway with a responsibility. Agree on informal terms of follow-up. One of the major obstacles to a good idea is the belief that a project has to be mapped out completely and perfected before the first step is taken. Action is often the best designer.

Later, when the idea has blossomed into a game-changer for your company, give credit where credit is due, including to yourself for staying out of the way, for nurturing development, and for mentoring a new leader within the organization.