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Get your employees to make better suggestions

HofmannHBRLeaders often have a hard time getting their employees to speak up honestly about what’s really going on in their organizations. Far too often, employees willfully choose to self-censor out of a fear of negative repercussions to their career or social standing. Yet when employees do choose to speak up, research suggests that a host of positive things can happen, including higher employee engagement and job satisfaction, greater learning,enhanced innovation and creativity, fewer accidents and safer workplaces, and even better unit financial performance.

The implicit assumption here is that if several things happened — leaders made it clear that speaking up is expected, encouraged and safe, and employees worked to overcome their fear, practiced speaking up skills and in the process became more confident in their ability — the problem would be solved. Leaders would hear all they need to hear, right?

Not so fast.

Review the open-ended comments on an employee survey, the ideas coming into a suggestion box or for those of us academics, student feedback from recent teaching evaluations, and it quickly becomes clear that all voice is not created equal. Consider meetings — individuals often go off on tangents or share personal, irrelevant opinions or stories. Simply put, not all voice is good voice and merely increasing the frequency and volume of speaking up is not enough.

The first step to getting helpful, constructive feedback is to admit that you as a leader don’t always have the answers. Your focus should be on accomplishing the goal, not advocating for your particular idea about how best to achieve it. Yet for many leaders, relinquishing commitment to their own solutions and ideas is difficult, particularly for those who are insecure about their own abilities or view their followers as a potential threat to their position or status in the organization. In order to create an environment for constructive voice, however, it’s essential.

Once you’ve established that foundation, there are several ways to increase the probability that your employees will speak up with thoughtful, well-informed ideas. Here are our recommendations based on our personal experiences working with leaders and our own and others’ academic research:

Put limits on your supportiveness.
Being supportive can backfire, especially if you unintentionally send the message that all voices are equal. Make clear that you value thoughtful input more than just any input. Encourage employees to think about issues from your perspective, factoring in potential constraints, obstacles and multiple stakeholders. One way to do this is by creating targeted campaigns where, for a limited period of time, you encourage people to come up with ideas that address a particular strategic imperative or challenge. For example, think about a situation where an organization wants to encourage customers to go to their website rather than call their toll-free number. Here the leader can clearly define the problem, along with any constraints or potential issues that need to be considered. After helping employees understand the problem and the broader context in which it’s situated, the leader could kick off a three-week ideation period during which employees submit ideas to a knowledge database and then revise each other’s ideas and vote on the best proposals.

Be accessible but demand high accountability.
Some employees are only reluctant to speak up in group settings such as meetings. In such cases, personally inviting them to share their thoughts and concerns with you privately may yield more and better insights. This may involve going by their office and soliciting input directly or scheduling regular one-on-one check-ins. At the same time, set high expectations to encourage high-quality input. For example, prior to beginning any meeting, set a clear agenda and frame the purpose of the ensuing conversation (e.g., “OK, so we have 60 minutes set aside to focus on topic X today, where we really want to flesh out Y particular challenge.”) and also demand high performance (e.g., “This is a critical juncture for this project and I really need you to bring your best ideas.”).

Help people see their biases.
Most employees will view a particular policy or process from a narrow, functional perspective and very few recognize that they have such a biased view of the situation. You’ll get better input if you help employees understand the bigger picture before proposing a solution. You might suggest team members hold a meeting (or meetings) with various key stakeholders to better understand the problem, situation or concern before proposing their own solution. For example, if a particular policy is frustrating an employee, ask that she meet with people who were involved in creating or implementing it to understand its purpose, the history of how it came about and what was tried previously. With this perspective, the employee can then propose a much more well-informed, workable solution that satisfies the overall goal.

Find influential “informants.”
You’ll get better input if you have someone screen ideas for you. Recruit trusted informants to collect feedback from their peers, aggregate this input and provide you with the best ideas. Since these informants are gathering informal feedback from their peers and presenting it to you anonymously, there’s the added bonus that employees likely will be more forthcoming in their observations.

Close the loop.
Employees who take the time to learn the broader context and voice constructive suggestions deserve feedback on what you did—or didn’t do­—with their input and why. Closing the loop not only encourages employees to continue to speak up, but encourages others as well when they see that voicing opinions constructively has a meaningful, positive impact.

When asking employees to speak up, be careful to not open the floodgates to a river of ideas that aren’t particularly thoughtful or useful. Instead, encourage people to make the effort to give input that is informed and constructive.


By David Hofmann, Hugh L. McColl Jr. Distinguished Professor of Leadership and organizational behavior, and John J. Sumanth (PhD ’11), assistant professor of organizational behavior at Wake Forest University School of Business.

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