How do you get people to bring their brains to work and not leave them at the door in a paper bag?


There has been lots written about the subject and managers are still frustrated by employee who  don't display initiative at work.


Most organisations are locked into a 20th century mindset based upon stability and predictability. And this kind of thinking inhibits innovation and continuous improvement. Managers put in place set processes and procedures and expect employees to follow these to the letter. The rationalisation for these systems is that they are the best way to accomplish work-related tasks. People are then rewarded for following standard practice and often criticised or even punished for not doing so. Under these constrains it is very hard to promote a frame of mind which is based on innovation and continuous improvement.


Another reason for this vacuum in ideas  is that we are still largely operating on the old 'them and us' employment relationship. Managers do the thinking and workers do the work. Under this psychological contract, employees believe that their manager is paid to think. And traditional managers may also believe this too and therefore show little interest in their employee's ideas.


At any rate, the best way to break this cycle is for managers to ask employees direct questions around innovation and continuous improvement. Asking a general question such as: "Have you got any suggestions for how we can improve?" is unlikely to elicit anything profound. The key is to ask specific questions in a timely manner about a specific task at work. And it helps to do this one-on-one. For example, a better question may be: "How would you go about improving the poor communication between our department and HR; I am interested in your ideas?"


Here are some areas that may assist in focusing the innovation and continuous improvement conversation:


  *   Improving quality

  *   Reducing time

  *   Reducing costs

  *   Increasing output

  *   Increasing safety

  *   Meeting deadlines

  *   Enhancing interpersonal cooperation

  *   Streamlining systems & processes


The other advice I would offer is this: Don't do this once or twice. Do this all the time.


In fact if every manager had a five to 10 minute conversation twice a year with their direct reports, I have no doubt that people would start coming up with suggestions on a range of matters. Some of them will undoubtedly be too costly or impractical. But some would also be worth considering.


Start with the routine tasks and processes. After all, the regular activities are likely to consume the most time. Improvements in these areas will consequently reap the greatest benefit.


This is the approach I am advocating in my latest book: The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Managing Employee Performance out in September.

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