From asking the right questions to accepting feedback with an open mind, encouraging employees to come up with and share their ideas is a multi-part process.

If you could create your own fantasy Board of Directors who would be on it? CO— connects you with thought leaders from across the business spectrum and asks them to help solve your biggest business challenges. In this edition, a CO— reader asks for tips on how to encourage employees to engage, identify and share their ideas.

Karin Hurt and David Dye, co-founders of international leadership training company Let’s Grow Leaders, and co-authors of “Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates” and “Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul” answer…

If you struggle to get new ideas from your team, you’re not alone.

According to our recent research in conjunction with the University of Northern Colorado, 40% of our respondents said they lack the confidence to share their ideas. And the biggest reason may surprise you: 49% said they are not regularly asked to share them.

We’ve also found that it takes more than a generic “How can we improve?” to draw out your team’s best ideas. Your team likely has questions of their own, such as:

  • Do you really want to hear what I have to say?
  • Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?
  • Are you humble enough to hear feedback?
  • Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?

There are two techniques we suggest when trying to encourage your team to share their ideas: asking courageous questions; and teaching employees the IDEA framework.

If you stop listening, they’ll stop sharing, so it’s worth the time investment to help your team identify good ideas and want to communicate them.

Karin Hurt and David Dye, co-founders, Let’s Grow Leaders


Experts Karin Hurt and David Dye offer their best tips on empowering employees to come up with and share their best ideas. For more ways to motivate your employees, read on.

How to ask employees ‘courageous’ questions

A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways:

  • It has a targeted focus on a specific activity, behavior or outcome. For example, rather than ask, “How can we improve?” try asking more specific questions, such as: “What is the number one frustration of our largest customer?” “What’s your analysis?” “What would happen if we solved this?” “How can we solve it?”
  • It creates powerful vulnerability. When you ask any of these sample questions, you are implicitly saying, “I know I’m not perfect. I know I can improve.” This is a strong message — if you sincerely mean it.
  • It sends the message that you are growing and want to improve. This, in turn, gives your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. It also makes it safe to share real feedback. When you say, “What is the greatest obstacle?” you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.

Courageous questions also require the asker to listen without defensiveness. This is where well-intentioned leaders often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they weren’t prepared to hear feedback. When you ask a courageous question, allow yourself to take in the response: Take notes, and thank everyone for taking the time — and having the confidence — to share their perspectives.

Here are some additional courageous questions to help you unlock your team’s best ideas:

  • What is a problem we have that no one talks about?
  • What do we do that really annoys our customers?
  • What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
  • What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
  • What recommendations do you have before we start on this conversion?
  • What are you most afraid of with this program/project/process?
  • What is the biggest source of conflict you're having working with X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
  • What's sabotaging our success?
 karin hurt and david dye headshot
Karin Hurt and David Dye, co-founders of Let’s Grow Leaders. — Lets Grow Leaders

The IDEA framework

Of course, you don’t just want ideas — you want good ideas. But how you respond to any incomplete, off-base or inelegant ideas makes all the difference in whether or not you’ll get the contributions you do need the next time. If you stop listening, they’ll stop sharing, so it’s worth the time investment to help your team identify good ideas and want to communicate them.

This is where the IDEA framework comes into play. If you want better ideas, have your employees use these simple, yet effective, questions to vet their ideas for viability.

I: Interesting

Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results improve from this idea (e.g., customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?

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 would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?

A: Actions

What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?

By telling your team you’re looking for interesting, doable, engaging actions, you are consistently asking and teaching them how to know a good idea when they see one.

This will give you a huge competitive advantage — attracting the most innovative talent and having more hearts and minds finding innovative ways to improve operations and improve your customer experience.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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