How Leaders Can Inspire Their Teams to Think Bigger
Q: I hired a lot of big thinkers, but I don’t feel like I’m getting the most out of them. How can I? — Leslie, Peoria, Ill.
You’re thinking the right way about your business — not only about the importance of ideas from your team but the role you need to play to encourage them.
When I first started hiring people, an entrepreneur I knew gave me terrible advice: He said that my team would be happy as long as the business was successful. If only job satisfaction were that easy! I learned that people are the heart of any business, and they require (and deserve) management that inspires both growth and creativity.
Supporting original thinking is a commitment on many levels. It starts with making sure your employees know new ideas are not just suggested but encouraged. Make it clear to your team that you want to hear their ideas (many employees fear overstepping imaginary boundaries), and build opportunities that invite them, such as having a day or two every month blocked off for creative work.
You may also want to consider building scenarios where your team can surprise you. For example, assign projects that stretch the limits of your employees. If you only give people tasks you know they can complete, you never find out what they are capable of achieving. The best employees will rise to the occasion, but first they need to be challenged to do so.
Once you’ve made it clear that creativity and ideas are encouraged, don’t undermine the environment you’re trying to build. I’ve made this mistake too many times. I’ve shot down big ideas quickly. I’ve challenged ideas rather than asking questions. I’ve listened to ideas from a few trusted people rather than my entire team.
To avoid my mistakes, lean toward meritocracy. Don’t let your biases subdue potentially good ideas. Instead, share those ideas—either anonymously or openly—with your whole team or in small groups, and see how they respond.
If you’re skeptical, don’t criticize or undercut the ideas. Instead, ask open-ended questions: “What does this accomplish that we’re not doing now?” “How does this benefit the business in new ways?” “What are the intended outcomes of this approach?”
The responses will allow you to see how your team thinks, and will generate perspectives that you might not have considered. You’ll likely be surprised by what you hear.
When ideas succeed, acknowledge them publicly. Give praise, and — if it makes sense — incentivize and reward. A boss who doesn’t take credit for all success and celebrates those who go above and beyond will inspire others to want to achieve something similar.
Just as important, when ideas don’t work, spend time with the employee and encourage them to keep coming up with more. Be vulnerable and share moments where your own ideas went south. And no matter what, don’t let them think this was their only chance. The first idea is rarely the best one, which means truly creative environments must embrace the misses if you want more hits.
In short: Create an encouraging environment. Don’t punish failure. Celebrate original thinking. Then your big-thinking team will take you places you’d never even imagined.