How to Get Employees to Share Ideas to Grow Your Business

Lee Polevoi by Lee Polevoi on May 21, 2014
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Your employees may be able to tell you a lot about your business you may not know. What do customers really think about your product or service? Are there more complaints (or less) than usual? What could be done to improve sales, marketing and customer service?

It seems simple enough just to ask the people who work for you, “What’s going on and how can we improve?” and expect an honest answer. But, due to the nature of the boss-employee relationship, things don’t always work that way.

“Employees rely upon you for their livelihood, so they are less likely to speak truthfully,” says Brian Hamilton, co-founder of Sageworks, which analyzes privately held companies. “Non-candid feedback is meaningless, and will not help you run your company more effectively.”

So how do you get people to open up? Here are four tips to nudge them toward sharing creative suggestions for growing the business:

Share the big picture. If employees don’t understand the financial state of your business — and what you’ve got planned for the future — it’s difficult for them to offer useful feedback. Take every opportunity to share information about the business, both successes and setbacks, so they have a better sense of how their knowledge and creativity might help spur growth.

Actively encourage participation. There are plenty of ways to encourage employees to share their ideas for improving the company:

  • Have an “open door policy” (at least during part of the work week).
  • Hold occasional brainstorming sessions outside of the workplace.
  • Put up a suggestion box.
  • Create a “shopping list” of topics you’d like to see addressed and invite employees to offer comments and suggestions.

Most importantly, be sure to emphasize the voluntary nature of your request.

“Forcing employees to participate usually doesn’t work well because we can’t force someone to be creative,” says Alex Ramirez of Management software firm Accompa. “Encourage employee participation by communicating the benefits of their ideas to your organization, your customers, as well as employees themselves.”

Make it clear there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Employees (like just about everyone else) are generally risk-averse. “Most people fear looking stupid or being asked to stretch beyond their comfort zones,” says Bruce Clark, J.D., president and CEO of CAI, a North Carolina human resources membership association. “An idea could mean they will have to explain it, give a presentation, or risk difficult questions on unfamiliar topics.”

Some employee ideas may be game-changers. Some will result in only marginal improvement. Others will simply fall flat. You must make it clear that, regardless of the outcome, there’s no penalty for sincerely offered ideas that fail to move the needle.

“Tell your employees, ‘I want you to feel free to fail and try again,’” says Kathleen Conroy of the Edward Lowe Foundation. “Discuss what went wrong, or why the idea wasn’t really feasible, or even why it might work well under different circumstances. Failure can be the ultimate learning experience.

Reward your employees’ creativity. Whether an idea results in explosive growth or simply helps overcome a minor operational hurdle, people are more forthcoming when some type of reward is involved. Always start with a publicly delivered “thank you” to everyone who offers suggestions. Other low-cost rewards might include an extra day off, special notice at a staff meeting, a coffee shop or movie gift card, a free car wash, or a company-hosted lunch at a local restaurant.

“The trick to giving your people rewards that make a real difference is to personalize them,” says author Peter Economy. “This is a case where one size definitely does not fit all. Find out what kinds of rewards are most motivating to your employees, and then tailor your recognition accordingly.”

Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.

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