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How Can I Encourage my Employees to Share Their Ideas or Talk About Problems with me?

Surprise. The best way to generate a flood of ideas or information about problems from your employees is to ask them. Beg your people for suggestions if you have to. Make your desire for employee suggestions well known in your written and your spoken announcements. Don’t let up. After a while they’ll understand that you are serious.

Share your vision with your staff members. They will then be on the same wavelength as you are—and so will the ideas. You have a vision for the future of your department. Let your employees in on that today so they can help you get there tomorrow.

Don’t criticize the ideas you get from your employees. Not all those suggestions you receive will be outstanding—some may not even be doable—but criticism can stifle the flow. In fact, you may even want to hold periodic meetings for the purpose of identifying ideas. These meetings may be held to come up with ways to do the work better, faster, cheaper, or more profitably. The purpose of these and similar meetings is to fully utilize your employees’ experiences to identify as a group better ways to get the work done.

When ideas are offered, get back to the source quickly. An employee should never say, "I wonder what my manager really thought about that idea I gave him last week." Thank employees who come to you with ideas. If an idea isn’t perfect, talk to the employee to see if it can be improved. If you need to do some research, alert the employee. Promise to get back to the employee by a certain time—and keep that promise. Respond as you said you would, even if it is to tell the employee that you may need a little more time to decide what to do.

One reason that managers dislike getting ideas from employees is the need to reject the bad ones. Not all ideas will be good. Some will really be terrible. About only a quarter of the ideas you receive will be usable. Those that aren’t should be rejected tactfully. Say something like this: "Thank you for your idea on …; the only thing that keeps us from using it is. … If you think of a way to get around this constraint, please take another crack at it." If the employees do get around the obstacles, then you may have a great solution to a major operations problem.

Tell Me More

It’s better to hear about problems from your employees than from customers. Therefore, you have to remain accessible. If you’re often out of town, out of the office, or just hard to call or meet with, employees may get discouraged and give up on keeping you informed. One way that you can make yourself accessible is by engaging in "Managing by Wandering Around." One of the many advantages of spending a few minutes each day with your staff is that they have the chance to take you aside to reveal some new development in their work.

If you think that your employees aren’t keeping you informed, the problem may be with you, not them. You think your employees aren’t keeping you informed. But you may be in such a state of hustle and bustle that you aren’t absorbing much of the information sent your way. If you have tended to react negatively to bad tidings, you may also have inadvertently cut the flow of information—good and bad—from your employees. If an employee brings a problem to you, direct your response toward what can be done to keep the problem from happening again, rather than on punishing the person responsible. Watch not only your words but also nonverbal communications. If employees see that bad news causes you anguish and they respect you, they’ll want to protect you from suffering.

Don’t lose your temper, either, if some employees tell you things that you already know. If you reacted to such situations with a loud retort, "I already know that!," it wouldn’t come as a surprise that your employees provide news selectively and hesitantly