One Crucial Way to Release Your Team’s Best Thinking

Your Team’s Best Thinking Won’t Always Raise Its Hand

By imtmphoto/Shutterstock

Medical insurance rates had gone up again. Our company’s insurance provider had restructured all their plans, and the numbers didn’t look good. Three days after we got the news, the CEO, Director of Finance, and I met to decide how we would respond to these changes.

The Director of Finance had done his homework. He brought several scenarios and spreadsheets. Our CEO considered the forecasts and brought us back to our organizational values – one of which was taking care of our people. We went back and forth through the numbers and committed to a plan that seemed fair.

Soon after the meeting, I talked with Gena, another executive, about a couple of budget and planning issues. “As you’re thinking about these,” I said, “it might be helpful to take a look at what we’re thinking about health insurance.”

I gave her the numbers and she glanced through them quickly, then looked at me and said, “I’m thinking of Marta …” Then Gena described how the “fair” plan we’d hammered out on spreadsheets would affect a valuable and hardworking team member who also had some very difficult life circumstances and family health issues.

“And then,” she continued, “There’s Matt. Here’s what this will mean for him.”

As Gena worked through the impact on various employees and their families, one thing became painfully clear: the numbers might have made sense on spreadsheets, but they made little sense in the actual world. Not given the importance of these employees and our organization’s values.

It was a valuable leadership lesson: everyone in that meeting had good intentions and was working hard to come up with a solution to a tough situation, but we didn’t have all the input we’d needed.

We scrapped that plan, went back to the drawing board, and I asked Gena to be a part of the team.

Ultimately, we found a better solution—a happy ending, right?

Yes, but what bothered me as I reflected on that day is this:  What would have happened if I hadn’t mentioned our plan to Gena?

And what if Gena hadn’t been willing to speak up with her insights?

Many people would have experienced needless heartache, frustration, and suffering. We would have lost good people.


Why Your Team’s Best Thinking Stays Hidden

In the two years of research leading up to our new book, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates, two critical questions we wanted to answer were what keeps your team’s best thinking in the shadows? and how can you bring it to light?

One of our research findings immediately took me back to that day with Gena. Just under half of our research respondents said their leaders don’t ask for their ideas.

Because no one asks.

When I first saw that number, it was astounding. Half? Seriously? But then I realized—I’ve been that leader. More than once, unfortunately.

And if you’re not asking, there’s a cascade of negative consequences. When people assume you don’t want their ideas, they quickly move to thinking that you’re stuck in your ways (67%) and that you won’t take their idea seriously—even if they volunteer it (50%).

If you want to hear your team’s best thinking, you’ve got to ask for it.


Get Specific, Be Vulnerable

You might be thinking, “Listen, I’ve made it clear to my team that I value their input and want their perspective. Do I really need to actively ask?”

My answer is Gena. She definitely felt confident and comfortable sharing her opinion and she knew it would be welcome. But if I hadn’t brought it up and opened the conversation, I might never have known what expertise she offered.

People are busy. They’ve got their own work. They might not even know there is a subject for which their input would be valuable.

When you ask for input, courageous questions will help you unlock your team’s best thinking. Courageous questions are specific and vulnerable. Specific in identifying exactly where you need ideas and input. Vulnerable in acknowledging that improvement is possible. For example:

  • How can we resolve this health insurance challenge in a way that’s fiscally responsible and maintains our commitment to our people?
  • What’s our customer’s number one frustration?
  • Where can we improve our commitment to racial equity?


Your Turn

Your people have insights, perspectives, ideas, and solutions just waiting to be revealed. But they might not even know they’ve got something valuable to say. Change the game and unlock your team’s best thinking by intentionally asking for what you need.

You’re not just asking for you—you’re asking on behalf of your customer, for your team, and for the person you ask.