Have you ever had a great idea, but were afraid to express it for fear of being thought of as being “out there?” Or, have you ever been exposed to ideas at work that you just knew were destined for failure, but you didn’t say anything as to not rock the boat?
At some point in our careers, the majority of us have experienced both of these things. While it seems so simple to speak up, we often don’t. Why is this?
Many factors will hold us back from voicing our true opinions. Fear of having our ideas rejected is one. Fear of a perceived disagreement may be another. All ideas come from people, and people take ownership of these ideas. When ideas are challenged, the owner of that idea can often times get defensive. Ego is a natural part of life and not all leaders take negative feedback as well as others. Because of this, many brilliant ideas go unspoken and many less than brilliant ones don’t get challenged, simply because they originated from someone who outranks us.
Taking ego out of the workplace
Many leaders have taken risks and trusted their guts all the way to the top. In doing so, they build confidence. But it does not mean that a leader has all the answers, and the great ones will be open to suggestions from those who are willing to express an opposing point of view.
In a truly successful workplace, any worker, regardless of rank, should feel free to express an opinion that has the organization’s betterment in mind. Rank, title, position or experience should never come into play. An idea is simply that - an idea. It makes no difference where a great idea comes from, or who stops a bad idea from moving your organization backward.
Speaking up for bad ideas
I have personal experience seeing this concept come to life inside a major, global organization. When I worked for brewing conglomerate MillerCoors, the head of our division continuously preached one important rule. He instilled in us the following words, “If you think it’s a bad idea, then it’s up to you to tell us so, because we certainly don’t know everything.”
Having that freedom to express our true, honest opinions, and having an open-door policy with which to do so, created an environment where ideas flowed freely and the best ideas worked their way to the surface. Without knowing our opinions were welcome and valued, I’m sure many of the ideas may have never moved forward or seen the light of day. Having that environment made for a better employment experience, giving each employee ownership in the process.
A recent article by Christina Folz on shrm.org shed some light on Adam Grant’s take on idea sharing. Grant is an organizational psychologist and professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and has a lot to say on the topic. Grant suggests companies create a “problem” box instead of a “suggestion” box.
Create a problem box
Quite a departure from the positive spin companies often try to put on things, having a problem box helps get to the bottom of problems so they can be solved. In response to the commonly heard phrase, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” Grant says, “I think this is a bad sentence and I think it’s a part of a dangerous philosophy.”
He believes that when companies tell people not to bring up problems, it stifles dialogue. Problems that don’t get brought into the open continue to grow beneath the surface. Things escalate, and before too long, fixable, minor issues turn into something much more severe. When employees are afraid to speak up, important insights get ignored.
Grant cites the global investment firm Bridgewater Associates which strongly encourages bringing problems to the forefront. One of the core beliefs of the company is that “nobody has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.” Simple, yet profound...and powerful!
Bridgewater takes it further by evaluating its people based on how willing they are to challenge their boss and the status quo. This is quite a departure from many workplaces where the exact opposite philosophy exists. Think about it this way - if a leader is never challenged, how can that leader grow? Any leader looking to grow and improve would be well advised to encourage feedback of any kind - good or bad - in order to learn what he or she can do better.
It’s not a bad idea, it’s just new
The interesting thing about ideas is that, many times, they are new. Because of that, there may be a natural apprehension to adopt the unfamiliar, novel idea. However, if given enough repetitive exposure to the idea, minds can change and become much more willing to accept the new ideas. In fact, according to Grant, “On average, it takes 10 to 20 exposures to an idea before it will be accepted.”
Cultural fit or cultural contribution?
Taking the concept of providing ideas further, how does it tie back to a company’s culture? We often hear about a company’s quest to find workers that are a “good cultural fit.” What, exactly, does that mean and why is that necessarily a good thing?
One problem with trying to find a staff full of people that all play nice in the sandbox together is that you get a lot of very similar people. Companies that want to bring the best ideas to the table may consider looking beyond cultural fit and more toward what a person can contribute new to the culture. If you have a room full of people that are similar, so too may be their less than inspiring ideas.
The takeaway here is to never stop sharing new ideas and giving feedback. Ideas are often new, and sometimes get rejected just because they are novel. Stick to your guns and keep providing feedback. Your ideas will eventually be heard.
Grant sums it up when he says, “Stop looking for people who will be a good “cultural fit” and start seeking those who can make a cultural contribution.” Going against the grain can lead to bold ideas that can challenge, and often improve, the status quo.