Leadership | September 16, 2011
reward employees for speaking up
By brian katz
I once had an hourly employee come to my office and tell me that we needed to backtrack on a decision we made to buy a particular software package and instead go with a different vendor. At the time we were well along in the implementation of the software. I responded by publicly giving her an employee recognition award for having the courage to express her views. I also once chastised a young lawyer for having a really good idea: the problem was that she expressed it when it was too late. Rather than ask her question early in the process, she waited until we had completed the transaction and then asked why we hadn’t used a much simpler way to reach the same result (the reason was that I had not seen the simpler way).
We are not all alpha personalities; most of us prefer to refrain from putting our egos on the line. It makes no difference how often, strongly or loudly you tell people that “no idea is a bad idea,” or “challenge me.” At the end of the day, people prefer the safe approach and hesitate to express their views.
Unfortunately, the safe approach is the very antithesis of innovation. Rarely is an innovative development the brainchild of one person. Usually the seed of an idea is vetted through a team and improved, developed and improved some more. This collaboration is a critical function of the innovative process because we do not all look through the crystal the same way. We need to make certain that the diversity of experiences and the biases of our team are all considered. How, then, do we make certain our employees express an idea or question whether a decision is the right one? How do we get that young intern or new hire to articulate his observation that there may be an easier way to accomplish a task?
First, you need to convince your employees they can trust you. Words are cheap, and the safe approach is safe. If you want people to move out of their comfort zone, you need to show them you are serious in your desire to receive their input. That is why I publically gave my employee an award for telling me something she knew I did want to hear. I was not talking just to her when I stood in front of the team and told her that I appreciated her candor; I wanted everyone to know that I really meant it when I said I valued their input and ideas.
Second, if someone does take the chance and expresses a view, be very careful that you do not dismiss it summarily or treat that person in a patronizing fashion. If you want people to come up with ideas or contribute to the process, they have to know that such conduct is safe and will not result in some form of humiliation. Note: ignoring or failing to respond to someone who has put their ego on the line is an example of conduct that tends to humiliate people.
Third, you need to make it clear to your team that you will not tolerate others who treat an idea in a dismissive or patronizing fashion. The tone is set at the top, and people must—and will—conform.
Alternatively, you can limit your hiring to people with Alpha personalities. Good luck with that.
How to you reward employees for speaking up?
Brian also participates as a regular contributor to Return on Performance, the official magazine of the Incentive Marketing Association. Check out their most recent issue for more ideas and best practices.