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Engage Employees by Asking for Their Ideas

December 1, 2009
Related Topics: Career Development, Corporate Culture, Motivating Employees, Employee Career Development, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
Did you know that the average American worker makes 1.1 suggestions per year on the job—one of the lowest rates of any industrialized nation? Contrast that average with 167 suggestions made each year by each Japanese worker and you can see the potential for great workplace ideas that exists—if only you can find a way to tap into it with every employee.

I’m convinced that every employee has at least one $50,000 idea, if you can find a way to get it out. Martin Edelston, chairman and CEO of Boardroom Inc., concurs. The newsletter and book publisher expects every employee—from receptionist to chairman—to submit at least two ideas each week for improvements. Initially established to encourage cost savings, the Boardroom Inc. program is called “I Power,” and the company credits the suggestion program with a fivefold increase in its revenue as well as untold benefits to the morale, energy and retention of its employees.

Each employee is asked to turn in two suggestions every week. Those ideas are evaluated the same week by an employee volunteer. For many of the suggestions, the evaluator says, “What a great idea!” and then returns the idea to the person who suggested it with the implicit permission to proceed to implement it.
While establishing a suggestion program is an effective way to tap into what employees are thinking, simply asking them a few key questions can also unearth a wealth of ideas:

“How could we improve things around here?” Workers always know the best way to get the job done because they’re the ones doing it—sometimes for years. Ask for their opinion. Donald Petersen, a former president and CEO of Ford, once reported that when he started visiting Ford plants and meeting with employees, “One man said he’d been with Ford for 25 years and hated every minute of it—until he was asked for his opinion. He said that question transformed his job.”
“What excites you about your job right now?” Employees who work for Michael Levine, president of Levine Communications, a public relations firm based in Los Angeles, tell me he routinely asks employees this question. And if any of them reply, “Nothing,” he immediately changes his plans so he can meet with that person about his or her job the same day. Michael knows that when employees are no longer excited about their jobs and are not learning or growing in their positions, it’s only a matter of time before they will leave the company.
“What one thing can I do better for you?” A manager at the Mirage Resort and Casino in Las Vegas asks her staff this question once a month. After listening to and acknowledging her employees’ concerns and ideas, she tells them one thing they can do better for her that month. By leading with a question and treating her employees as equals she is able to better motivate them to act on her behalf—and that of the organization.

The power of a good question can be immense. Use these questions to engage your employees, to improve the way they think about their work, and to get at some of the most important issues in their jobs.

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