Employees have ideas, and most leaders really want to hear them. And yet somehow, there is a disconnect.

When Karin Hurt and David Dye were working with clients all over the world and across a variety of industries, they always heard the same complaints form business leaders:

  • Why am I the only one that sees these issues? What's wrong with my managers? Why can't they see this stuff and fix it?
  • We've got so many ways for people to submit their ideas. Why don't more people use them?
  • My direct reports are always out talking to employees. But all we get is a bunch of fluff.

What’s even more interesting is that, as soon as they went to do training at the frontline of these same organizations, this is what they heard:

  • The only way to get the customer what they need is to use this workaround. I have been doing it for years, which is why my customers love me so much. It's not standard procedure, though. So I just keep my head down, so my boss doesn't notice.
  • They say they want our ideas, but nothing ever changes. I've stopped bothering.
  • Whenever a big WIG comes down from HQ to do a focus group, my boss warns us to only talk about the good stuff, so it doesn't look like we're complaining.

Karen and David set out to partner on an extensive research study in collaboration with the University of North Colorado in order to answer these questions: When employees hold back ideas, what kinds of ideas are they holding back? Why are they holding back these ideas?

They joined us for a recent Innov8rs Connect on Culture, Talent & Teams to share findings from the study, as also captured in their book Courageous Cultures.

What Is A Courageous Culture?

To explain what a courageous culture is, Karen and David borrow the definition of culture from the marketing guru Seth Godin, who simply says, “Culture is people like us, do things like this”.

In a courageous culture people like us speak up and share ideas. In a courageous culture, the default is to contribute.

At this point, the question arises spontaneously: How does courage work? Which translates into: what are the main and most frequent reasons for not speaking up with solutions or ideas? The research offers four major answers to this straightforward yet not trivial question:

  • No one asked: 49% of respondents said that they don’t share because they're not regularly asked for ideas by their leaders. And an open door policy or sophisticated suggestion system is not enough for most employees to feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to contribute, warn the experts.
  • Nothing happens: 50% of respondents said that if they were to contribute an idea, it would not be taken seriously. Leaders may be asking for ideas and even doing something with them, but employees will assume nothing is happening if there's no feedback loop.
  • Feeling stuck: 67% of respondents said that their manager operates according to the notion “this is the way we've always done it” – and, therefore, employees think leaders don’t want new ideas. It also emerged that, in many cases, their boss agreed their concepts would work and are doable, but then the same employees were told to go back and do things “the old way”.
  • Fear: people fear speaking up. And this fear, concern, and reluctance comes out in the research in a number of different ways. But one of them is that 40% of respondents said they don't feel confident in sharing their ideas. In a nutshell, employees don’t lack ideas – they lack confidence. As a business leader, you should understand what’s crushing people’s courage and work to eliminate the real and imagined barriers preventing contribution.

Karen and David refer to the concept of “fear of speaking up” as F.O.S.U. And borrowing some psychological safety concepts from Dr. Amy Edmondson, who wrote The Fearless Organization, they point out that:

  • People are more likely to hold on to a negative experience with speaking up than a positive experience. Accordingly, even if you're the most human-centered leader and you proactively ask your employees for their ideas, it is statistically probable that there is someone on your team who has had a negative experience in the past with speaking up that they are holding on to and are reluctant to share their ideas.
  • People are likely to discount the future, which means they will underweight the future benefits of speaking up and overweight the fear that they're having.

7 Steps To Building A Courageous Culture

In order to help you find ways to go out and ask people for their ideas proactively, Karen and David share seven steps you can take to build a courageous culture:

1. Navigate the narratives: Courage starts with you. Be courageous, get real with yourself, acknowledge your internal stories, and ground yourself in the experiences that give you and your team confidence and courage. Get comfortable with your own comfort level of speaking up. Leaders always go first – be a role model for your team.

2. Create clarity: Be clear around two things. First, be clear that you really want people's ideas. And, second, be clear about what a good idea would accomplish. Make sure people understand where you're headed strategically, so they know what kinds of ideas to bring forward.

3. Cultivate curiosity: proactively go out and invite people to contribute their ideas. Later in the article, we'll give you a couple of practical ways to do that.

4. Respond with regard: what do you do with an idea you can't use? Don’t overlook this step and give feedback to not-so-great ideas as well. If you want a consistent stream of ideas to be shared consistently, be sure you respond to all of them with regard.

5. Practice the principle: find the core idea within best practices and help your team localize best practices for their unique circumstances. In short, take an idea from one market or customer and commit to customizing it.

6. Galvanize the genius: use advanced communication techniques to spread your ideas throughout the organization so that everyone is aware and knows what is important.

7. Build an infrastructure for courage: make sure all your HR systems and processes, including onboarding, performance management systems, etc., support your courageous culture.

During their session, Karen and David delved into the first four steps of this list. Although all seven points are crucial, the first four can really help you build a courageous culture in your organization in the near future. For more details on steps 5, 6, and 7, check out their book “Courageous Cultures”.

1. Navigate your narrative

Executives like you are too frequently afraid to be who they are at work. But if you're afraid, all you do is incomplete. Your team is watching you – you have the responsibility to be a role model. And if you want to create a courageous culture, i.e., an environment where people are encouraged to share their truth and where they feel comfortable speaking up, start with you.

Because no matter what you’re saying about wanting people's ideas, if they are watching you and you are holding back, that is the message they'll receive.

Navigating the narrative is about your relationship with courage. It's about being aware of your own stories and the stories of your team. And the reason that navigating the narrative is the foundation of courageous cultures is because there's a paradox at the heart of a courageous culture itself. That is: if people speak up, if people like us raise their hand on behalf of their customers to micro-innovate and solve problems, and if that's what everyone's doing, it takes less daily courage for anyone in the organization to do that – because that's what people like us do.

Courage starts because leaders go first - as a leader, you must lead by example. Accordingly, when it comes to talking about navigating the narrative, that paradox is why it's so important that leaders master their own relationships first.

The other reality at the heart of navigating the narrative is that everyone asked for their moment of courage. Indeed, when we think about being courageous in the future, if we've already done so, we can ground ourselves in the foundation of the places we have already been courageous and use that energy to power us going forward.

A helpful, simple technique to navigate the narrative is to surface the fears to speak up for a specific project upfront. And you can do that by publicly asking anyone involved to share their fears anonymously. This is what is called “visible anonymity”, meaning everybody can see that people are contributing by sharing their thoughts, they don't know who's saying what, and then having conversations around the various topics all together.

Yet visible anonymity doesn’t always open up the appropriate nuance of concerns. You should look at it as a tool to use in a transition phase. Ultimately, in a courageous culture, we want to get to the point where we can speak up and candidly with one another. But if you're not there yet, the act of visible anonymity is a way to help get valuable information into the room.

2. Create clarity

When it comes to having a courageous culture, the second phase is to make it clear that you want people's ideas, define what area you need the ideas in, and make sure people really understand where the whole organization is headed strategically so they can bring you better ideas.

“One good conversation about expectations can prevent 14 “Why didn't you?” conversations”, says Karen. Long story short, creating clarity serves the primary purpose of not completely missing the big picture.

3. Cultivate curiosity

A courageous culture particularly enables micro-innovations, which are most of the innovations out there. They add up to truly transform cultures, organizations, and business realities – they're definitely not the blue ocean innovations. Micro innovations are the small enhancements in day-to-day processes, products, and services that improve workplace efficiencies and employee and customer experience. They add up to competitive advantage and make a major difference.

How to find and surface them? For this purpose, Karen and Davide share three tools.

1st Tool: Courageous Question

The first one – which leverages the clarity – is something called a “courageous question”. A courageous question differs from a normal “how can we improve?” question because it's specific, it dives very narrowly into a topic. In addition, a courageous question is vulnerable, meaning that it assumes that improvement is possible. And when you ask that kind of a question with an intent to listen, as opposed to responding right away, it's amazing what people can start to contribute. Here are a few examples:

    • What is one way we can improve the efficiency of this process? (this question is very specific and humble, it’s asking for one way to improve the efficiency of the process, assuming that there is something you can do to improve)
    • What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity right now? (again, this question assumes that something is standing in the way)
    • What's one policy of ours that you just don’t like? (this question assumes that some policies are driving people crazy)
2nd Tool: U.G.L.Y.

Another tool that can enable people to quickly generate good, valuable ideas and insights is the U.G.L.Y. technique, a strategic conversation starter to help you and your team fast identify and prioritize strategic opportunities. It starts with clearly identifying an area where you need a great idea – e.g., How do we maintain our productivity as we move into a hybrid working environment? How to take care of employees' mental health? – and then asking the following strategic questions:

    • U: What are we Underestimating? What are you not thinking about? Likely answers could be that you’re underestimating your employees' skill sets or how excited people would be about something.
    • G: What’s got to Go? What do you need to stop doing in order to implement and focus on this new idea? This point is really important because when people have an idea, there is a tendency to lay it on top of all the other things that are happening, and that’s one of the reasons people get exhausted with change.
    • L: Where are we Losing? You should be able to answer questions like: Where are we losing to the competition? Where are we losing key talent?
    • Y: Where are we missing the Yes? Understand if there is a totally different way to look at that opportunity that you might not be thinking about.
3rd Tool: I.D.E.A.

Of course, as you go through that process, you'll generate many ideas as it's a good way to surface them quickly. Yet sometimes, it can be too many. Using the I.D.E.A. model, you can help your team bring you better ideas that can get traction. “A good I.D.E.A. has a better chance of being used and making a difference”, says David. All you need to do is share the following criteria with your team and be clear that the idea to submit needs to be:

    • I – Interesting: Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results be made better by this idea?
    • D – Doable: Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?
    • E – Engaging: Who are the key stakeholders we might need to consider and bring in for this idea? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?
    • A – Actions: What are the most recommended actions needed to try this? What is the next step?

4. Respond with regard

What you do and how you respond when you receive a range of different ideas really puts the capstone in this process of leading courageously and being a courageous culture leader.

As mentioned, 50% of respondents believe that no one wants their idea, and 67% feel stuck in their ways. Regardless of the kind of ideas you're receiving, the antidote to that is to respond with regard. Responding with regard ensures a consistent flow of innovation and problem solving from your team.

There are three sequential steps to respond with regard:

  1. Gratitude: always thank employees for thinking about how the organization can be and do better, even if you can't use that idea.
  2. Information: if the idea has already been implemented, give them information to learn more. If the idea is missing something, provide additional information. If you can't use the idea, share the reason.
  3. Invitation: invite your employees to keep thinking and contributing, specifically in the areas where you most need a great idea.

Building a courageous culture means empowering every team member to contribute by sharing their ideas. But you need some tools to use and practices to follow to succeed at this. First and foremost, you need to be your team’s role model: share your ideas first and show them that the organization is willing to accept and evaluate all ideas. Help them overcome the hurdle of fear of speaking up. And, as soon as everyone learns to share, it takes less daily courage for anyone in the organization to do so.

Furthermore, be clear about where you need interesting, doable, engaging ideas and ask courageous, specific questions that require an equally detailed answer. Eventually, close the loop with your response to ensure a consistent flow of ideas. Show gratitude for every single idea you receive, share more information if the idea is not applicable or is missing something, and invite people to keep contributing.