Recently, I had the pleasure of interacting with the best performing location of a large, multinational company. Although the organization employed tens of thousands of employees, this location consistently excelled at meeting customer needs and exceeding corporate goals. The employees appeared to be engaged in their work, satisfied with their supervisor, and committed to performing at the highest level possible.
As I spoke with employees on the team and sought to identify what made them special, a theme emerged. Not surprising, most praised the management team, its values, and the overarching culture. One employee said that her boss “would do anything for her.” Another employee mentioned that every request or comment was taken seriously and acted on if resources were available. When asked about those occasions when resources were not readily available, the employee indicated that the manager always explained why and made the employee feel important. One of the last interviewees discussed how she had not fit in with the team in the beginning, but her manager worked with her, helped her develop, and now she is a star performer. She was going into her twentieth year with the organization.
As I debriefed with the employees at the end of the interviews, I asked for a second time about areas for improvement. After a protracted pause, one of the supervisors spoke up and said, “we love the management and where we work, but we come up with a lot of ideas, but rarely receive little public credit.” At first, I thought that I had misunderstood the comment. Several employees had praised how managers take their suggestions seriously and even identified specific initiatives based on their thoughts. However, clarification followed almost immediately. Senior management listened and appreciated employee ideas, but typically took credit for those ideas.
A more senior employee described how she had spent weeks developing an idea on how to improve the workflow associated with customer tracking. After several months, she brought her idea to her boss and he listened closely and praised her for her insight. She heard little about it until the next senior management meeting when her boss presented the idea as his own. Another employee described how her boss would listen to ideas during their daily debriefing and send an email to his peers before she even returned to her office claiming he had a new idea for their consideration. Most of the managers agreed that coming with new ideas held diminishing allure since managers took the credit.
We have all been in this situation at least once in our career and experienced that sinking feeling of losing ownership of our own creative expression. Only the most confident managers give credit when credit is due and most would rather overlook the contributor in favor of their own recognition. Obviously, part of being a professional includes providing ideas to leadership that improve our unit or organization. However, like most productive activities that an employee engages in, positive feedback and recognition is critical for sustainability.
What can we do as managers to ensure that our team provides the best ideas possible?
Encourage thinking – We want people to think and it is important that nurture that ability. The labor market holds numerous people that can complete assigned tasks, but a truly insightful and innovative employee is a rare treasure.
Provide feedback – Most ideas benefit from dialogue. The most effective managers spend time with employees discussing their ideas, encouraging the development of new ideas, and providing beneficial resources.
Give credit – Recognition ties in closely to satisfaction as well as engagement and in its absence, our interest in repeating the behavior dwindles. If we want our employees to come up with new ideas on a regular basis, we need to show them we value their contribution enough to recognize it.