Leaders face rising pressure to include more voices in day-to-day decision making. Soliciting diverse perspectives across the organizational hierarchy makes good business sense: It’s been shown to improve innovation and help employees feel valued and avoid burnout. But have these pressures resulted in more ideas reaching fruition for the average team? Not really.
In our work as researchers, consultants, and teachers, we’ve seen that “good intentions” aren’t enough when it comes to implementing employees’ ideas. Leaders have plenty of stories and tactics to encourage people to share their ideas — and as many reasons for rejecting them. Research shows that asking people to speak up without listening to what they say can be counterproductive. Energetic star employees can become discouraged and even quit when they’re invited to share ideas that don’t go anywhere compared to when they’re not invited at all.
Many leaders feel stuck. They know that employee perspectives are crucial for retention and innovation, but they struggle to single-handedly create a culture where employees are empowered both to speak up with ideas and to see them through — where it’s the good idea that matters, rather than the role or status of the person who initially raises it. Based on our research on “voice cultivation,” we’ve identified several tactics leaders and their teams can use to help ensure good ideas make it to implementation.
Voice cultivation can overcome initial rejection
To understand how good ideas come to fruition or die on the vine, we spent two years in a health care organization tracking instances of “upward voice” — that is, employees’ constructive ideas for improving organizational or team functioning. We witnessed many rejections, but we also found that around a quarter of the hundreds of ideas we followed were ultimately implemented.
The ideas that made it shared a process we came to call “voice cultivation”: the collective, social process through which employees help lower-power team members’ voiced ideas reach implementation. There were five specific tactics we saw team members engage in to resuscitate initially rejected ideas and then keep them alive over time: amplifying, developing, legitimizing, exemplifying, and issue raising. Team members in most work settings can adapt and apply these tactics strategically.
Publicly repeating someone else’s good idea, especially at later times and through multiple communication channels, can help push an idea forward. This is particularly true for those trying to influence authority figures. In the clinic, we observed many instances of this. For example, a nurse shared how overwhelmed she was with clinic calls that limited her in-clinic nursing work and proposed different strategies for handling calls. The doctor thanked her but rejected her idea because the problem was huge and “[couldn’t] be fixed.” However, the idea lingered, and other team members brought up the nurse’s idea again even while she was out on maternity leave. By the time she returned, the team was experimenting with different call-routing strategies.
Similar amplification tactics were evident among women staffers in the Obama administration. According to the Washington Post, “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” And during a recent conversation at NYU Law, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described how she and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame constant interruptions and appropriation of their ideas by amplifying each other’s ideas. In our latest executive workshop at Harvard, Dr. April Camilla Roslani, a surgeon and university dean, shared that she encouraged her team “to repeat or echo good ideas in the event that they are missed or not valued and to recognize the person who brought them up originally.” Amplifying allows anyone who hears a good idea to ensure that it’s not lost.
Sometimes giving an idea the benefit of the doubt is sufficient. We saw team members keep rejected ideas alive by asking clarifying questions that helped them and others better understand them. This strategy is particularly helpful in interdisciplinary teams, where people from different professions and genders often speak past each other, using different jargon and linguistic patterns. The difficulties and opportunities posed by an idea that are salient to some team members may be invisible to others. Developing one another’s ideas helps make them legible across the team.
Vouching for ideas that you believe in is critical for their success. We saw team members keep ideas alive by sharing examples of a similar personal experience or of how a similar idea worked at a competitor or admired peer institution, or by describing how the idea could be beneficial and doable at their organization. It prevented ideas from lower-power members from being dismissed.
We’ve seen the importance of this tactic even outside organizations. For example, La Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of farmworker women, wrote an open letter in which they legitimized the workplace sexual harassment experiences of their “sisters” in Hollywood, helping prompt the creation of the Time’s Up legal defense fund.
Researchers who study innovation and conflict highlight the importance of discussing ideas that are tangible rather than amorphous. Finding a way to show preliminary evidence that a previously rejected idea is feasible and important can help revive it. In keeping with the saying that it is sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, if you’re lower in the organizational hierarchy, taking the initiative to demonstrate in small ways how an idea can actually work in practice or to collect data as part of your day-to-day work can prompt discussions that help keep an idea alive.
Allies can exemplify, but the idea holder can also engage in this work. For example, we observed a receptionist propose that staff should have a seat in leadership team meetings — an idea that was rejected when the team leader explained that a similar proposal didn’t receive enough support a few years back. Though the idea was rejected several more times, the receptionist volunteered to liaise between the team and leadership, making herself indispensable to both and earning a seat at the leadership table.
Supporting an idea does not mean unconditional support. Publicly calling out the weaknesses associated with an idea can keep it alive by providing allies the chance to openly generate solutions and address concerns directly. In fact, we found the best way to “kill” an idea was to not raise issues or name specific weaknesses, preventing allies from having an opening to address concerns. Acknowledging all the barriers an idea would face helped the idea holder prepare and helped allies engage in joint problem solving. Issue-raising is not about silencing but rather acknowledging that it might take time and work for an idea to find its footing.
Promoting voice cultivation
To make sure their employees’ good ideas get a better chance at implementation, leaders should train their teams to engage in voice cultivation. By introducing voice cultivation to their teams, leaders:
- Set the tone that team members can build each other up or at minimum grant each other the benefit of the doubt
- Promote teamwork rather than competition by rewarding team members for developing others’ good ideas
- Provide practical behaviors the team can engage in and recognize
- Create accountability structures outside of the leaders’ own good intentions
That last point can be tricky for leaders since they’re setting up conditions through which their team can wield some collective power in pushing ideas through to implementation — ideas the leader may not always support. However, they might find longer-term benefits in employee morale by modeling voice cultivation in their teams, and they might also find it useful in meetings where they’re the lower-power team member.
Here are two tools leaders can use to promote voice cultivation on their teams.
Choose the right tactics
A vital feature of leadership is to name and give meaning to vital issues that others intuit but may lack the language to articulate or feel they have the permission to address. This is absolutely the case for voice cultivation. By sharing the concept of voice cultivation with their teams and helping team members reflect on opportunities to implement cultivation tactics, leaders can set the stage for active voice cultivation. Doing so may offer leaders the secondary benefit of setting a tone of psychological safety and inclusiveness on their teams, by emphasizing that they believe everyone has important contributions to make in both raising ideas and seeing them through.
To assist leaders in bringing voice cultivation to their teams, the following table presents an overview of the cultivation tactics and offers example reflection questions to help team members reflect on opportunities to implement these tactics in their own work. Leaders can share this information to spark a discussion as part of a launch for a new team or as part of a “relaunch” for a team seeking to reset its norms and work processes. Other teams that are ongoing may already be using voice cultivation tactics, and leaders can further advance progress by recognizing, naming, and encouraging their continued use.
Consider the environment
Voice cultivating tactics are most powerful when they’re responsive to why an idea was initially rejected. For example, if those with the power to greenlight an idea don’t think the idea is important or possible, amplifying is the wrong tactic, but legitimizing it could provide the support needed to push it forward. This is particularly true of ideas that ask those in power to give up or change something that’s important to them. In those instances, engaging in issue-selling is critical to fostering the opportunity for joint problem raising and joint problem solving. In the following table, we suggest some groupings of tactics — allyship, co-crafting, problematizing, and persistence — that can be responsive to specific forms of resistance.
From our work with leaders across industries, we’ve seen that many are embracing new behaviors to create more inclusive and participative work environments. Voice cultivation can be a helpful addition to their repertoire.