A supervisor shared his experience: “I would like to ask employees their thoughts about problems or just about work issues, but it comes back to haunt me every time! Sometimes their ideas are so lacking in reality that I can’t help but get irritated. Worse is when I get five ideas from five different people and all of them complain because I didn’t take their advice!”
It sounds as though that supervisor could use some new methods for how he asks for input from employees and how he uses it.
Asking for input the right way.
Pick the right time. Don’t expect the most effective input when someone is just walking in the door or getting ready to leave or if they are very busy. Consider scheduling the time.
Ask for thoughts or ideas, not for advice. Advice comes with an expectation that you will take it or reject it. Thoughts or ideas are simply expressions of opinions to add to someone else’s thought processes.
- Ask for thoughts not rants. Sometimes a general “what do you think” is OK, but try to focus the remarks of the employee toward the information you are seeking. Don’t reward people who are known for arguing or getting angry, by implying you like that behavior. Not, “Greg, if anyone can find the flaw in this you surely can.” Or, “Lisa, let me know what you hate about this idea.”
- Give people time to think about it. Most of us can quickly produce a half-baked idea. However, have you noticed that your best thoughts come after a conversation? Give people a chance to cogitate about the subject in which you want their input–even if only for a few minutes. Email or call ahead. Or, do as Captain Rudy Phannenstiel used to do with me: “I’ve got to make a phone call but I’ll be done in about fifteen minutes. Be thinking about this and I’ll get back to you.” He always did and I had ideas ready! (Surprise, huh?)
- Let them know how you’ll use their thoughts. Make it clear that you’re getting several ideas and want theirs as well. Or, perhaps you just want to hear someones philosophy about a topic–say that too. Don’t promise that all ideas will be used or that you’ll make a choice based on suggestions. Just listen.
Responding to input and using it.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’re better off not asking for input at all than asking for it but not acknowledging it–but that’s near to the truth most of the time. Your response to input and how you use it are key issues that can make getting input a positive or negative experience.
Whether you agree or disagree, acknowledge that you listened and heard. A few simple statements can let people know that you have listened and heard. “That’s good for me to know.” “That’s a viewpoint I need to hear.” “This gives me something to consider.” “Interesting way to look at it. Thanks.” ”Hmm. I’ll add that to the opinions I’ve gotten from other people. Thanks.”
Emphasize positive aspects of the conversation. “I was wondering what you thought about it, so thanks for letting me know.” “I’ve asked several people and I wanted to be sure to ask you.” “I think of all of you as the best resources I can have.” “I’m lucky to have someone with your background here.”
Make notes so you can remember. A month from now or next year, it will be good to have a few reminders about ideas you’ve received or the opinions of employees or others. Take the time to send yourself an email or make a file folder, if you asked for thoughts about something significant.
Follow up, even if very casually. If you frequently ask for input you don’t need to send a thank you note each time you listen to an employee. However, you can certainly make the effort to say a quick thanks. “Thanks again for your thoughts today.” If someones ideas were a large part of your deliberation or if you used their ideas or suggestions, put it in writing.
When possible, reflect employee input on performance evaluations. Use your notes to remind you and them that you value their contributions. A few sentences is enough, unless the input was extremely valuable. “In this reporting period Cheryl was a helpful resource about several key issues. Among them….”
The bottom line: Look for chances to ask people with whom you work for their thoughts, opinions, experiences, concerns, observations, ideas–and now and then, perhaps, advice. Make it a positive process for you and for them. It’s a great way to strengthen relationships, learn more about others and gain insights you need for effectiveness.