Your supervisors and agents know how to improve the customer experience, streamline the training, and make your tools 100% easier to use. And yet, this is a scene I see in almost every center I work with.
I do a focus group. One of the agents presents a BRILLIANT idea. The center director loves it and agrees to implement it. When we go back to celebrate the agent for their contribution, they say, “I’ve been telling my team leader this for a year. Why is it that they’ll hear it from you, and not me?”
It happens at the team leader level too. In a recent call center visit, one of the strong team leaders said, “We want to help, and we have great ideas. The problem is, I’m starting to feel like a nagging spouse, and the company is my partner who won’t listen.” Ouch.
Of course, we run into the inverse problem too. Agents tell us “no one wants to hear my ideas, so I’ve just stopped bringing them up.” Or, last time I brought something up I got in trouble, so now I keep my mouth shut.
Our research in partnership with the University of North Colorado found that 67% of employees say that their leadership operates under the premise, “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
How to Draw Out Your Team’s Great ideas
If you want more ideas from your team, it takes more than asking a generic “How can we improve” question.
Your team has questions of their own:
- Do you really want to hear what I have to say?
- Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?
- Are you humble enough to hear feedback?
- Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?
The sad truth is that even if you’re the best leader ever, completely open to new ideas and ready to implement them, chances are your employees have some scar tissue that makes them default to “safe silence.”
If you want to free their best ideas from the prison of safety, you need to address these concerns.
One of the best ways to create safety and draw out your team’s best ideas is to ask courageous questions.
A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways.
First, a courageous question focuses on a specific activity, behavior, or outcome.
For example, rather than ask “How can we improve?” ask “What is the number one frustration of our largest customer? What’s your analysis? What would happen if we solved this? How can we solve it?”
Next, a courageous question creates powerful vulnerability.
When you ask for specific examples of how you can improve your leadership, you are implicitly saying “I know things aren’t perfect. I know I can improve.”
This is a strong message–if you sincerely mean it. You send the message that you are growing and want to improve. This, in turn, gives your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. It also makes it safe to share real feedback.
When you say “What is the greatest obstacle?” you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.
Finally, courageous questions require the asker to listen without defensiveness.
This is where well-intentioned leaders often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they weren’t prepared to hear feedback that made them uncomfortable.
Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers for – asking for feedback and ignoring it is worse than not asking at all.
When you ask a courageous question, allow yourself to take in the feedback. Take notes, thank everyone for taking the time and having the confidence to share their perspective. With many courageous questions, you’ll get conflicting views. That’s okay. It’s healthy. Let the team know how you (or they) will decide what to do next based on all the ideas.
Here are a few more courageous questions to get you started and unlock your team’s best ideas:
- What is the problem we have that no one talks about?
- What are our policies that such?
- What do we do that really annoys our customers?
- What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
- What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
How to Train Your Team to Give You BETTER Ideas
Of course, you don’t just want ideas—you want GOOD ideas. There’s no time for half-baked solutions to trivial problems. But if you stop listening, they’ll stop sharing, and you’ll miss the good ones.
In our research, 40% of the participants said they don’t feel confident to share their ideas and 45% say they haven’t been trained to think critically or solve problems.
If you want better ideas, help your employees know what differentiates a good idea by giving them a few criteria. Tell your team you’re looking for interesting, doable, engaging actions.