5 Reasons employees aren’t sharing their ideas

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work for a great company! We have a culture that we’ve worked hard to establish and continuously improve …. we have an extremely low turnover rate and, for the most part, great feedback scores from our employees. Unfortunately, one of the things we seem to have an area of opportunity on is “employees feeling comfortable providing their opinion.” What could be behind this? How can we ensure that employees feel that they can talk with us?

To read the answer click here: 5 Reasons employees aren’t sharing their ideas

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15 thoughts on “5 Reasons employees aren’t sharing their ideas

  1. You hit the nails on their heads. Judging and reacting to ideas go a tremendous length to discouraging employees to submit ideas.

    Better, I think, to collect ideas then let a team of employees, including some bosses, prioritize the list of ideas to decide what ideas to pursue and implement. Then publish the prioritized list and brief action plans and dates for the top ideas. In this way, all employees can see that their ideas have an assigned priority. That is a far better response than a stark No.

    A fast and effective way to solicit ideas is to ask a very simple question, “Name one thing that should we stop doing immediately to make us more effective?” From experience, this generates responses quickly.

    Do not ask, “What should we start doing immediately to make us more effective.” Employees treat this question as a “gimme list” with responses like, “Pay us more money.” and “Subsidize the cafeteria.” and “Get rid of so-and-so.” Responses such as these are not helpful.

      1. Gotta be honest, not my idea, but I can’t remember where I found it. Glad I read this idea years ago because it is strongly effective.

  2. I am not saying that this is the poster’s situation because obviously I don’t know the details where she is employed. I can only speak for my own office. Employees do not share information here for a few reasons.

    People here get fired or laid off out of the blue. There are no meetings to warn a person their behavior is putting their job at risk. This creates a bunch of islands where people rarely trust one another.

    The atmosphere at this office is one of not sharing due to fear of both ticking off management and losing their job to the person they are training. I have several examples of information being withheld because a person felt threatened by their coworker or subordinate (doing better than they at the job).

    Management here rules by fear. Clearly the OP does not work in an environment like that. In fact management here closes their doors. We rarely get more than a hi/bye from them. Why would I trust someone with my ideas who sees me as a warm body producing output.

    I see the OP’s question kind of like most relationships in that in order for someone to feel “safe” sharing their heart with you, you have to cultivate the air or feeling of safety. People clam up when they don’t feel safe.

    To that end, I second Ms. Lucas’ comments re: fault faulting, a defensive tone & punitive action when ideas fail.

  3. great list – to which I’ll add a small item – just because an employee makes a suggestions does NOT mean that employee should now be held responsible for that suggestion.

    I once worked at a place where whenever an employee made a suggestion he/she was told “great idea, now make it work!” whether it should have been his/her job duty or not. This, of course, caused only new folks to speak up while us “ol’ timers” learned to keep our mouths shut unless we wanted more on our already busy schedule.

    1. Absolutely right. Employees need to have the authority, resources, and organizational support to implement their ideas. Without these, it is irresponsible for managers to toss ideas back in employees’ laps.

      A few years ago I was leading a skip-level meeting with about a dozen accountants, warehouse clerks, assembly operators, engineers, etc. One long term material handler close to retirement age made a valid suggestion. I asked if he would be interested in implementing his suggestion provided I give him the money and the authority to make it happen. He looked shocked and said yes. I followed through on my commitment, and he made the improvement happen very quickly. This required coordinating with the Facilities department and the HR department. He also earned the respect and congratulations from his peers in the warehouse and factory since his suggestion was for their benefit.

  4. Sometimes employers don’t listen if it’s something they don’t want to hear. I mentioned to one of our managers that someone was continuously coming in late (30 minutes or more). The manager denied it and I showed all the texts I had received from the employee involved saying that they would be late. It turned out they were “forgetting” their badge so they couldn’t clock in and would just ask the manager to clock them in. Any other place I have worked at that would be grounds for immediate dismissal–but this employee was friends with the manager and they didn’t want to admit he could do something that bad. So when things finally got bad enough that the managers couldn’t ignore it any more, they got frustrated that no one would say anything about the employee in question and they didn’t have any “proof” that they needed to fire him. Well, they had heard plenty earlier and people had been ignored, so no one was very eager to speak up again.

    And sadly, the situation is repeating again. I really don’t see any point of complaining if someone is doing something wrong (although if it was illegal I would!), because nothing is done about it until the situation almost becomes unlivable. And I think this atmosphere carries over to other things–if employees think their employers won’t listen about one thing, they think they probably won’t listen about anything.

  5. Mary is so right:
    “And I think this atmosphere carries over to other things–if employees think their employers won’t listen about one thing, they think they probably won’t listen about anything.”

  6. I started a new position about a month ago. In a conversation with my supervisor he said “If you don’t break things occasionally, you aren’t going far enough. You don’t really know what the boundary is unless you go past it once in a while.” It was one of the most refreshing things I have heard in a long time and made me feel good about my decision to take this job.

  7. I think it’s also a question of whether those ideas ever get implemented and why. I made a very logical suggestion that would have saved my company real money (in the thousands) and increased productivity as well as general goodwill, and the response was, “Wow, that is a great idea. We’re not going to do it. Thanks though.” I’ve never suggested anything since. If I’d been told it was too difficult, or violated some law, or there was a flaw in my math or something, I might have voiced another idea in the future but the total absence of logic that governed that decision made me assume no one here is sensible enough to listen to me, so why would I bother?

    1. There are innumerable ways that decision makers (most of these are managers of some type) shut down good ideas. You describe the attack on the “how”, the suggested means of implementation. Far better, I think, if the decision maker says, “Great idea, but for such-and-such reasons we can’t follow the implementation path you suggest. Can we brainstorm on other ways to achieve the same objective?” Very often there are feasible and economic alternatives to implementing the idea.

  8. One of the issues I consistently see is that employees dont always know that not every great idea can be implemented right now. Whether its due to budget or other resources employees need some closure to their great idea if it’s not implemented. Otherwise the ideas will stop.

  9. In my experience, the more the boss says they want to hear ideas, the less they actually do want to hear anything other than agreement. I’ve learned (the hard way) that when asked for an opinion, it’s best to suss out what the boss wants to hear and go with that…no matter what I actually happen to think. Frustrating? Sometimes…but it’s a lot safer.

    1. It’s not enough for bosses to say that they want to hear ideas. They must demonstrate through their actions that they will prioritize and implement them. By doing this, good bosses and leaders keep the ideas coming and eventually create a vibrant participatory working culture.

      Unfortunately, many bosses of all ages never achieve this level of managerial maturity. If courageous employees will professionally challenge their bosses by saying, “That’s great! Now how will we prioritize and implement the better ideas?” If people saying this follow up with their plan for doing so, it takes a significant burden off of the bosses’ shoulders and creates a good promotion path for employees who do this.

  10. A portion of this question speaks to overall company culture – and it’s interesting in the article that the list of 5 reasons includes 2 reasons that are directly related to manager/boss personality. Defensiveness, Fault-finding and Self-Validation are things the manager/boss must work out on a personal level, then implement an inclusive culture-building personality with their peers and subordinates.

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