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Great Minds Don't Think Alike

Strategies for cultivating a free-thinking, collaborative company culture

Harmony and consensus are beautiful things. But when you're trying to grow a business, too much consensus can be deadly. If you want to be an effective leader, encourage your employees to think for themselves, not follow you blindly.

Admittedly, it's tempting to hire people who think the same way you do. You speak the same language, which makes it easier to avoid day-to-day conflicts. It's also gratifying, ego-wise, to surround yourself with people who agree with you.

But, surrounding yourself with "Mini-Mes" only stifles innovation, and new ideas are vital to continued growth.

Collaboration--the mingling of different viewpoints--beats consensus any day. And as your company's leader, it's your job to make that happen.

So, how do you encourage freethinking in the workplace? Here are some techniques that some members of my peer advisory groups use:

  1. Encourage your employees to offer suggestions. After all, who knows the ins and outs of your business better? Whether through an old-fashioned suggestion box or a special email address, there needs to be a dedicated process for soliciting employee input.
  2. Recognize and reward your employees' best ideas. It doesn't have to be a huge reward to be powerful. Whether it's a premium parking space for your "Great Thinker of the Month" or a paid day-off, recognition works. Prime the pump by implement as many suggestions as you can, even some of the weaker ones.
  3. Cultivate a culture of collaboration and innovation. Hold interdepartmental brainstorming sessions. Make sure employees know how to give each other positive, constructive feedback. Provide training if necessary.
  4. Take action against negativity. Be careful that your collaborative efforts don't foster an environment where employees badmouth each other. This tends to shut people down. If you have an organization destroyer in your midst--someone who consistently undercuts morale--take action, even if that person is one of your top performers.
  5. Take note of your own management style. When an employee makes a suggestion, is your knee-jerk reaction to quickly shoot them down? Train yourself to respond in a more positive way and be more open to new ideas.
  6. Let employees run meetings. Instead of running every meeting yourself, let your employees take turns being chairperson. This encourages others to talk and gets you in the habit of listening. Remember, as the boss, you are by nature intimidating. Your staff is pre-programmed to defer to you. You won't invite anarchy by occasionally leveling the playing field.
  7. Hiring different kinds of thinkers from diverse backgrounds. Look for candidates whose strengths and styles complement rather than mirror your own. Of course, they must share your moral standards, work ethics, and fit into the company culture, but that's a different story.

The point is, you never know where--or from whom--your next great idea is coming from. Be the kind of leader that encourages innovation.

Banish the expression "Great minds think alike." I like this one by General George Patton better: "If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."

Ray Silverstein is the president of PRO: President's Resource Organization , a network of peer advisory boards for small business owners. He is author of two books: The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses and the new Small Business Survival Guide: How to Survive (and Thrive) in Tough Times . He can be reached at 1-800-818-0150 or ray@propres.com .

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