How to get better suggestions

Leaders often have a hard time getting their employees to speak up honestly about what’s really going on in their organizations. Yet when employees do choose to speak up, research suggests that a host of positive things can happen, including higher employee engagement and even better financial performance.

The implicit assumption here is that the problem would be solved if leaders made it clear that speaking up is expected, encouraged and safe, and if employees worked to overcome their fear, practiced speaking up skills, and in the process became more confident in their ability, the problem would be solved. Leaders would hear all they need to hear, right?

Not so fast.

Review the open-ended comments on an employee survey, and it quickly becomes clear that all voice is not created equal. Consider meetings – individuals often go off on tangents or share personal, irrelevant opinions or stories. Simply put, not all voice is good voice, and merely increasing the frequency and volume of speaking up is not enough.

The first step to getting helpful, constructive feedback is to admit that you as a leader don’t always have the answers. Your focus should be on accomplishing the goal, not advocating for your particular idea about how best to achieve it. Yet, for many leaders, relinquishing commitment to their own solutions and ideas is difficult, particularly for those who are insecure about their own abilities or view their followers as a potential threat to their position or status in the organization. In order to create an environment for constructive voice, however, it’s essential.

Once you’ve established that foundation, there are several ways to increase the probability that your employees will speak up with thoughtful, well-informed ideas. Here are our recommendations:

+ Put limits on your supportiveness. Being supportive can backfire, especially if you unintentionally send the message that all voice is equal. Make clear that you value thoughtful input more than just any input. Encourage employees to think about issues from your perspective, factoring in potential constraints, obstacles and multiple stakeholders.

+ Be accessible, but demand high accountability. Some employees are only reluctant to speak up in group settings such as meetings. In such cases, personally inviting them to share their thoughts and concerns with you privately may yield more and better insights. At the same time, set high expectations to encourage high-quality input.

+ Help people see their biases. Most employees will view a particular policy or process from a narrow, functional perspective, and very few recognize that they have such a biased view of the situation. You’ll get better input if you help employees understand the bigger picture before proposing a solution.

+ Find influential “informants.” You’ll get better input if you have someone screen ideas for you. Recruit trusted informants to collect feedback from their peers, aggregate this input and provide you with the best ideas. Since these informants are gathering informal feedback from their peers and presenting it to you anonymously, there’s the added bonus that employees likely will be more forthcoming in their observations.

+ Close the loop. Employees who take the time to learn the broader context and voice constructive suggestions deserve feedback on what you did – or didn’t do – with their input and why. Closing the loop not only encourages employees to continue to speak up, but encourages others as well, when they see that voicing opinions constructively has a meaningful, positive impact.

(David A. Hofmann is a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. John J. Sumanth is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Wake Forest University School of Business.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate