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Helping employees find their voice

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on January 10, 2018

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How can firms encourage idea-sharing for better business?



There’s a meeting at work, asking for your ideas on how to improve the business. Are you the person who confidently begins suggesting, or the one offering ideas with some diffidence, or do you stay quiet as you have decided the ideas will be ignored/stay unimplemented/ be ridiculed?

How can organisations encourage their employees to participate more?

Innovation coach R Sridhar says people can be encouraged to speak up in simple ways. When a junior person proposes a new idea good managers don’t jump to kill it. “They ask helpful questions. ‘Tell me more.’ ‘How will this work? How can it help us solve our problem? What are some of the issues we may have to address if we were to execute it?’ Such discussions help build the idea and make it stronger. Impatient, trigger-happy leaders don’t have the patience and lack the training. It comes from the belief that every problem can have only one right answer.”

In his recent book, Unlock The Real Power of Ideation, Sridhar discusses the resistance to creativity. “It starts with our discomfort with the unfamiliar. In some cases, the new idea might require us to change something we have been doing for ages. So it could be inertia. If it requires investment in time, money and resources in something new it calls for courage on the part of the decision-maker.”

No shame in failure

Kiranmai Pendyala, Corporate Vice-President & COO, HR of semiconductor firm AMD, points to a cultural trait. American and European cultures are individualistic, irrespective of hierarchy, but Asia is entirely different, with its tradition of deferring to seniors. “It’s important for innovation-based companies like ours to facilitate a system where employees believe every idea has its own value. Without that, no innovation would happen. We have to help them understand there’s no penalty and that it’s okay to fail.”

It’s the management/HR unit’s collective responsibility to drive a culture where free expression of ideas and solutions is encouraged, says Shantanu Das, Chief Human Resources Officer, Amway India. “Managers must explicitly invite and recognise ideas and suggestions that they receive. Employees expect an honest acknowledgement that their inputs are being considered without any bias.”

Engaging employees

“Office culture and levels of engagement are critical areas which often get mere lip service,” says Salil Sadanandan, President, Kitchen and Bath, Kohler Brand, S. Asia, Middle East & SSA. A highly engaged work force has a vested interest in the company’s success and so tends to be more vocal about everything that impacts business results, he says.

How can companies encourage people to share ideas? A child mocked or scolded for an unusual idea will soon learn to tell teachers and parents what will please them. Says Sridhar, “We carry this behaviour to our work places as well. Be patient and genuinely interested in the ideas and suggestions, in a spirit of exploration. We must teach people how to share new ideas in an interesting, engaging way.”

Sometimes employees fear managers would be hostile to suggestions, that speaking up may have negative repercussions. The HR managers believe the onus of creating a transparent and open organisation rests with the leadership.

An important quality of a leader is being secure about what you don’t know, says Sadanandan of Kohler. “I do not shy away from displaying my ignorance in meetings even with very junior people present. I believe that encourages most people to lose their own inhibitions.” Amway’s Das adds, “Employees should be made aware about the risks of not speaking up instead of focusing on the risks of speaking up.”

For better ideation, Sridhar recommends asking experts or those outside the core team to chip in. Will this not hurt the team members? “Why? When we are in a new city don’t we ask for directions? It is the smart thing to do. It saves money, time and effort. If someone feels alienated he should be removed from the team. He will be a drag on other people’s effort and enthusiasm,” he declares.

Responding with respect

Seeing their ideas come to fruition spurs employees to participate with more enthusiasm. Of course, this is not always possible. Explaining why can go a long way in instilling confidence. AMD’s Pendyala recounts an instance where a product idea for a chip had to be dropped after two years of work as the market had shifted. “It was hard for the employees who had worked on it. We openly told them the business landscape had shifted and it had lost its relevance. However, we told them it had beautiful features that could be used in another product.”

Amway’s Das says that if employees are kept in the dark, they will lose the vigour to contribute in future. This entails the creation of a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere. “Firms should provide their employees with the skills required to speak up, and take timely action when problems are reported. Not only that, they should ensure employees know that it was addressed, that their speaking up was not futile. “Failure should be rewarded in a structured way that fosters innovation, risk-taking and idea generation,” adds Das.

Published on September 13, 2017

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