How to Keep Your Team Talking

If you still want to get the most creative ideas from your employees, have them continue to solve problems even when you're saying no

A wonderful thing about the Knowledge Economy is the way that knowledge workers get to wrap their brains around interesting problems. A hundred and fifty years ago, when my ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Chicago and pulled barges along the Chicago Canal, the benefit of going to work every day was taking home a paycheck to the wife and 12 kids.

Today, knowledge workers get to take home a paycheck and also engage in intellectually stimulating conversation with co-workers (on a good day) and continue to learn about our functions and our industries. When all the pieces fit together, white-collar work is enriching in more ways than just financial.

Management and HR groups spend a lot of time talking about "engagement," also known as "ego involvement," which comes down to getting employees excited about the work they're doing and its contribution to the company. As a corporate HR person, I used to conduct annual engagement surveys and take other steps to find out how "into their jobs" our company's employees were.

Use It or Lose It

The idea behind engagement-mania is that when employees truly care about what they're doing, beyond the simple need to pay the rent or the mortgage, everybody wins. The work is more fulfilling for employees, and the company gets the best part of its workers' brains and creative juices deployed on its projects.

The only downside to having engaged employees is that once you've asked for the full use of your team members' intellects, you have to also let them go to town. It's no good to say, "We want all of your brain cells put to work on this project and all of your creative ideas," and then squash those ideas like bedbugs.

So engagement is a two-way street for managers. If you ask for your employees' passion and brains, you have to actually make use of them. That's one of the reasons why managing knowledge workers is a complicated task. Obviously, not every idea from every employee will win the day, but it's important to keep asking for input and to keep incorporating it whenever doing so makes sense. And when employees' well-intentioned contributions aren't exactly what's called for, it's important to say so—and say why.

Crushed Spirits

But it's much easier to say "Great idea! Let's roll with it!" when a terrific solution has been put forward by someone on your team, than it is to take the time to explain why an employee's favorite brainchild isn't going anywhere except the circular file. The more time and energy a person has put into his plan and the more people he has enrolled in it, the worse the problem becomes.

The next time you sit in a meeting and toss around ideas, take note of what happens when a team member's pet idea is rejected. Notice that her face falls, her gaze becomes distant, and her eyes dart away from the group in embarrassment. In improvisation training—standard training for actors that's often used as a business exercise—building up willingness to throw out ideas is critical, and self-censorship is the death knell. In fact, it's illegal to say "Bad idea" because shutting people down doesn't lead to great solutions, encouraging free-flowing idea generation does.

One training exercise that mimics a brainstorming meeting has people supporting every idea, no matter how outrageous. Let's say the exercise is about generating ideas for a new product launch. One person suggests a cell phone covered with Velcro to stick to your body. Great! Everyone loves it! Then someone says, "Why not a cell phone attached to your ear so you're never without it?" Brilliant! Everybody applauds.

Ideas on a Roll

Clearly these aren't practical ideas. But they're not meant to be. The point is to get people comfortable with not saying "no" as a kneejerk reaction. Now, as a busy manager, you may not have the time to indulge people's really wacky ideas. But hopefully you and your team have learned the art of not shooting things down. Let's say you need a name for your new product line by 3 p.m.

You may find it expedient to respond to suggestions thrown out by the team like this: "Maybe." "Maybe." "No." "Hate it." "No." "Forget about it." "No way."

Even long-established, well-integrated teams may not be entirely comfortable with that kind of slicing and dicing of ideas. And the danger is that once shot down, the most creative person clams up, now hesitant or totally unwilling to speak up again.

Here are some ways to soften the blow and keep ideas coming in the future. First, if you think the suggestion is completely off base, ask a question to find out what the team member was thinking. Your opinion about what sounds like a hare-brained solution may change when hear what prompted it. "Now, Carmen, I'm not seeing how that theme supports our goal," you will say, although your brain is saying "You've got to be kidding." Carmen's explanation may clear up the confusion and give you new respect for her thought processes.

Find Something to Praise

If you still hate the proposal after hearing the explanation, say, "I love the way you're thinking about this. For this campaign, I need to stay a little more corporate (be a little more general, stick with the established branding, etc.). But I want you to keep those ideas coming. You're our resident expert on X, and I rely on your terrific experience and instincts."

Other things to say: "That would be a great idea if we had…(more time, a bigger budget, a hipper audience)." Or, "I like the core of your idea—the notion of using client testimonials in our product brochure. Can we build on that foundation?" The key is, if possible, to find something praiseworthy in even the most off-base suggestion.

Think of it this way: If you can keep employees feeling heard and engaged, you can train them to hit closer to the mark next time. If you shut them down completely, you've killed the goose that lays the eggs—golden, platinum, or whatever they may be—and turned the engagement switch to "off." That won't benefit the employees, you, or the company. Keep that in mind in your group problem-solving, and you may end up with the most creative team in the industry.

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