Today’s organizations spend considerable time and energy selecting and recruiting creative talent. And rightly so. Creative employees help their organizations survive and remain relevant in an ever-changing global environment. But no matter how creative an organization’s workforce might be, if employees are unwilling to speak up and express their innovative ideas to the organization’s leaders, than creativity will be but an untapped resource. Luckily, there are steps both leaders and employees can take to ensure the creativity present in an organization sees the light of day, and they revolve around enhancing an important part of the creative process: employee voice, or the expression of novel ideas and changes intended to improve the work environment.
The first set of suggestions are geared toward those who have arguably the strongest influence over employee voice: the organization’s leaders. So if you’re looking to ensure your employees are willing to come forward and share their best ideas, consider the following:
Although this sounds simple enough, research shows one of the primary reasons employees refrain from speaking up is because they don’t believe their leader wants to hear their concerns or suggestions. So one of the easiest ways you can ensure your employees understand that you actually value and desire their creative ideas is to personally ask them to offer any thoughts or suggestions that they believe can help the organization grow and succeed. In fact, by neglecting to explicitly encourage your employees to voice their opinions, you might not only be instilling a mindset in your employees that you neither want nor value their ideas, but employees might also begin to question your confidence as a leader and activeness in your leadership role.
Nearly every discussion on how to promote an environment where employees are willing to express their creative ideas acknowledges the importance for leaders to foster psychological safety, i.e. the perception that it is safe to take risks and voice one’s opinions without fear of negative repercussions. But how can you foster such an environment? One way is to openly recognize and commend those employees who do come to you with ideas and suggestions. As research suggests, when employees see other members of the work group safely voicing their opinions, they are more likely to view such behavior as acceptable and consistent with the norms of the environment. And as a result, you’re likely to find more employees willing to come forward with their ideas.
Voicing creative ideas is a process. It involves the conceptualization of an idea, deciding when and how to communicate it and anticipating the need to defend or justify the idea after it’s communicated. So in addition to making sure your employees feel that their voice is desired and accepted, it is also important that you ensure they possess the diverse set of skills needed to navigate the creative process. According to research, some of the best ways to make sure your employees are equipped to contribute their constructive and innovative ideas is to regularly share relevant information with them, allow them increased responsibility and give them the autonomy they need to think outside the box and even make mistakes.
Although leaders set the tone for whether their employees will speak up, employees themselves can take certain steps to voice more effectively. So if you’re looking to make sure your ideas have the best chance of being heard and ultimately implemented, consider implementing these suggestions.
As mentioned, the ability to develop and effectively convey your creative ideas requires that you draw on a diverse set of skills including, but certainly not limited to, those related to problem-solving, communication and the art of persuasion. One way to begin building such a repertoire of skills is by actively seeking out opportunities to take on additional responsibility, especially those activities that require you to use underdeveloped skillsets. Seeking out these opportunities for growth can not only increase your ability to conceptualize and communicate your ideas, but it may also increase the quality of the relationship with your leader, which can be useful when attempting to express an innovative or challenging idea. As research suggests, leaders may be more receptive to the ideas of those employees with whom they share a closer, more trusted relationship.
One way to maximize your chances of getting your idea heard and (hopefully) implemented is to focus on how you communicate the idea to your leader. When you go to your leader to express an idea or proposed change, you’re essentially trying to persuade them that your idea is important and needed. But as creatures of habit, most people — including many leaders — tend to be somewhat apprehensive to change, especially if it involves some major deviation from the status quo. So rather than hastily pitching your groundbreaking idea that involves a radically new way of doing things, ask yourself if there’s a way you can break it down into more easily digestible suggestions that can be implemented in stages. Research shows that people are much more willing to comply with a large request if an initial, smaller request is made first (also known as the foot-in-the-door technique).
Even in an environment where you feel safe to voice your ideas and concerns, it is important to remember that not all of your ideas will ultimately be implemented. Such situations might discourage you from voicing ideas, especially when faced with the bitter truth that your idea wasn’t as practical, feasible or brilliant as you originally thought. But remember that rejection is part of the creative process, and developing resilience in the face of rejection is critical if you want your creativity to flourish. For example, while we tend to think that those who are highly creative simply come up with better ideas more easily than others, they actually just come up with more ideas, including terrible ones that are ultimately rejected. In other words, where others quit in the face of failure, highly creative people continue to develop and voice their ideas. So next time (and there will be a next time) you come up with and communicate an idea that turned out to be bunk, remain steadfast and move on to the next.
Ensuring employee creativity finds its voice requires effort from both leaders and employees. Applying the suggestions offered here can help unlock the creativity potentially lying dormant in your organization.