Critical-thinking, problem-solving, and customer advocacy are essential skills for managers in competitive companies. But executives have a familiar lament about their employees’ ability to solve problems and innovate: “It’s hard to find people who ‘get it’ – who can think critically, step up, and solve problems.”
New research from leadership experts Karin Hurt and David Dye reveals that the problem isn’t a simple lack of talent. Leadership plays a significant role. An astonishing 49% of respondents said that they are not regularly asked for their ideas. The research further revealed that 45% said there’s no training available at their organization for problem-solving and critical thinking.
When employees don’t contribute their best thinking, companies lose money on flawed projects, innovations that never happen, and subpar customer service. These companies are also likely to see lower morale and higher turnover rates due to teams feeling discouraged about expressing their opinions.
Innovation Start Early
Fortunately, executives can overcome this gap and cultivate problem-solving and innovation starting with their candidate’s first contact with the organization. Hiring and onboarding play an important role in whether or not people will speak up to improve the company.
For entry-level or frontline positions, leaders should examine traditional postings and job descriptions that emphasize compliant work and revise descriptions that are silent about solving problems or looking out for the customer.
During interviews, hiring managers ask behavior-based questions about prospective employees’ experiences solving problems, seeing through the customer’s eyes, and making small improvements in their day-to-day work. For example:
- What’s the best idea you’ve ever had to improve the business? Tell me about the idea. What did you do with it and what happened as a result?
- Tell me about a time that you strongly disagreed with your manager. What was the issue? How did you work to resolve the conflict?
- Describe the most difficult problem you’ve ever faced at work. How did you work to overcome it? What are you most proud of about your approach and what would you do differently the next time?
- What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made at work? What did you learn?
- In this company, we require every employee to think and act like a customer advocate. Have you led teams or been on a team like that? How did you know that team members were solving problems and acting on behalf of your customers?
Cultivate Contribution from Day One
To emphasize a culture of contribution, managers can ask new team members to write down at least three new ideas or best practices they would recommend. If new employees struggle to come up with recommendations, these prompts can help unlock their experiences:
- How did they approach (insert current challenge here) at your previous company?
- What does XYZ company do better than we do?
- What tools or processes do you miss from your old company?
- If you could teach everyone here one best practice from your previous job what would that be?
After they ask the questions, managers make a calendar appointment one month later to discuss the employee’s ideas. This meeting reinforces the expectation for innovation and immediately taps into the new team member’s outsider perspective before they acclimate to their new organization.
When leaders interview and onboard with an emphasis on speaking up and contributing, innovation and problem-solving aren’t left to chance. They become cultural norms.
Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, an International Leadership Training Company and the authors of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020) and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul (AMACOM 2016).