You can use employee ideas to drive the bottom line, but … it requires a large shift in thinking

I’ve worked for a lot of senior leaders who seem to hold a belief that the company’s success comes at the expense of its employees, not as a result of their work. What do I mean by that? It’s a common attitude that rank-and-file employees mess up projects and screw up the vision of the top dogs — so they have to rush in and save the day. The lament goes something like this: “If only we had better talent, we’d be crushing our market!”

In reality, as most people know, this is all garbage. The “Our employees are messing up the vision of leadership!” mentality is often completely self-invented by leadership, because it gives them increased relevance. The “We need better talent to compete!” narrative is something leaders often say, but very infrequently actually pursue.

These are the inherent dichotomies of work: people say one thing, do the other, and expect no one will notice. In reality, many people notice, distrust is fostered, and engagement is low. To rationalize that, leaders ignore engagement and focus on financial metics. Rinse and repeat.

What if there was a way to genuinely use employees to bolster the bottom line, though?

Well, there is. It’s called work. Your employees make your products, work with customers, market them, sell them, etc. So whenever you think “Ugh, our employees are screwing everything up!” — remember they’re also doing everything. So if you have revenue and growth, well, they’re not screwing everything up by any means.

The value of employee ideas

There’s a new article on Harvard Business Review called ‘Creating A Culture Where Employees Speak Up,’ which is another one of those lip-service things at most companies. Leaders claim they want ideas from everyone, but often they don’t. Heck, this article even outright mentions that concept:

Our case studies also make clear why so many companies that have succeeded in diversifying their ranks fail to capitalize on that diversity: management too often elicits and endorses the ideas of people like themselves. More than half our respondents (56%) say leaders at their firm fail to see value in ideas that they personally don’t see a need for.

For the uneducated on business and organizational terms, that’s called ‘homophily’ — embracing ‘the way we’ve always done it’ or ‘the ideas closest to the leaders.’ It plagues many work teams.

I’ve always been a proponent of the notion that good ideas, and organizational breakthroughs, can come from anywhere in a company. The problem, of course, is that most cultures are set up in a way where good ideas are seen as a threat — managers worry that means someone is ‘coming’ for them or some ridiculous other thing.

So, we talk a lot about the value of employee ideas and leadership at all levels and all that, but we oftentimes really don’t mean it because of the ways our organizations are set up. Remember: rank-and-file employees are closest to the customers and the workflow. Senior leaders are closest to the perks and the financials. It’s an inverted set-up. The perks of any company are the best part; it’s what you look at when you secretly wonder if you could have a higher base salary somewhere else, or a better bonus. No senior leader wants to depart from the perks, so their goal is to hold their ground. If a big idea comes from down the chain, that threatens their ground and their access to the perks system. That’s bad for them.

Employee ideas and the bottom line

This research in HBR from The Center for Talent Innovation uses the word ‘diversity’ in the context of idea generation, which would probably confuse many people who think ‘diversity’ means “Do you have an African-American or a female on your Board?” So I won’t use ‘diversity’ as a term here, but regardless, the research found six (6) key attributes of leaders who encourage idea generation down the chain:

  • Ask questions and listen carefully (Yep)
  • Facilitate constructive argument (Yep)
  • Give actionable feedback (Yep)
  • Take advice from the team and act on it (Yep)
  • Share credit (Yep)
  • Maintain regular contact with team members (Yep)

Now we come to the major point of any fluffy or soft skill concept like ‘Getting ideas from employees,’ which is:

  • Will this make us money?

Let’s see what this research says about that:

Employees are 70% more likely than those at non-diverse publicly traded companies to report having captured a new market in the last year and 45% more likely to report having grown market share.

That’s not bad. There’s also this:

Across our eleven markets, global team members with inclusive leaders, we find, are more likely than those with non-inclusive leaders to say they’re willing to go the extra mile for company success (84% vs. 70%).

The notion of ‘going the extra mile’ has been shown to be tied to bottom-line success in other studies.

How do we get employee ideas and increase the bottom line, then?

Well, let’s start by defining what not to do:

That’s probably your first natural reaction — companies love to throw programs, processes, and consultants at problems — but idea generation and employee value/engagement is a people issue. You don’t solve people issues with technology.

Imagine this conversation, right?

You’re having a fight with your wife/girlfriend about something.

Instead of trying to talk it out and resolve it, you tell her:

“Honey, what we need is Windows 10!”

You’d be laughed out of the room.

I know ‘work’ and ‘marriage’ are by no means the same thing, but companies do something like the above every hour — and it’s wrong.

You get ideas from employees by:

If you’re not comfortable with real human conversation and interaction, set up a shared Google Drive document or some such. There are ways to accomplish ‘Hey, what ideas are out there?’ without taking your employees to the pub and fretting over whether you’re becoming friends (a concern for many bosses).


Start in this one place:

Once you’ve resolved that — and many company leaders do it simply by realizing “Hey, this could lead to more money…” — then you move on to the above with this type of cognitive flow:

  • Our goal is to make money.
  • In order to do that, we need to give away some of our money and spend it on employees.
  • When we hire a person and give them a salary, that’s cutting into our revenue.
  • But since we needed that person and that work, we agreed to trust them and pay them.
  • So since we’re paying them anyway, why don’t we see what ideas they have?
  • I mean, we agreed to trust them by hiring them, right?

Most senior leaders look at a $60K employee and that’s all they see — a $60K employee, a grunt, a worker bee, a front-liner, a rank-and-file.

But what if that $60K employee has a $3M idea on a pad somewhere?

Then they’re suddenly a lot more than a $60K employee — and you sure as hell don’t want that $3M idea going to a rival.

Now: yes, yes, you are right. There are drones in every company. Sometimes a $60K employee is probably worth about $15. That also happens.

But there’s a big risk in inaction here, right?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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