How to Cultivate Solutions-Focused Employees

December 3, 2019

How to Cultivate Solutions-Focused Employees

When most managers are asked how often their employees suggest creative, empathetic and customer-focused solutions, the answer is often “not nearly enough.” Many of today’s business leaders genuinely believe they foster an open environment that encourages employees to speak up; yet, they are shocked when they learn that their employees are actually holding back. 

The fact is that employees have good ideas, they want to be heard and leadership wants to hear them. However, all too often, employees and leaders feel that no one cares about cultivating a communicative culture of solution-focused problem solvers. 

What Prevents a Solutions Focus?

For many companies, lack of innovation isn’t about senior leaders who fear making big go or no-go decisions—it’s the exponential effect of countless small opportunities missed simply because team members didn’t speak up. When employees resist the urge to speak up, feel discouraged for saying the wrong thing, or don’t recognize they have something of value to share, they tend to play it safe, keeping their heads down, and say or do nothing. As a result, problems multiply, worker morale sinks and customers leave.

This reluctance or inability to focus on solutions and speak up with new ideas has several causes: 

  • 41 percent of research respondents said their leadership doesn’t value innovations and 67 percent said leadership operates on the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it.” 
  • That belief that leaders don’t want solutions compounds with the fact that just under half (49 percent) of respondents said their leaders don’t regularly ask for new ideas.
  • Half of respondents believe that if they do share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously and 56 percent said a fear of not getting credit would keep them from sharing an idea.

HR leaders can help managers overcome these barriers to a solutions-focused culture by equipping leaders at every level with three vital skills: Create Clarity, Cultivate Curiosity, and Respond with Regard.

Create Clarity

Ask most managers where they could most use an innovative solution and they will have an immediate answer. They’ll respond with the most pertinent strategic problem facing their team. Now ask their team the same question: “Where could your team most use an innovative solution?” and the answers vary widely. 

Innovation starts with information: people can’t focus on solutions if they don’t know the problem. Leaders who want their team to solve more problems or to bring more ideas need to provide clarity about where they’re headed and what matters most. Team members need to know the one to three big strategic priorities where their ideas would make the most difference and which kinds of best practices are most important to share. 

Cultivate Curiosity

Cultivating curiosity isn’t simply a matter of asking more questions. That helps, but it’s not just that leaders ask—they ask regularly and skillfully. Ask in ways that draw out people’s best thinking, new ideas, and customer-focused solutions. Leaders build a culture where everyone knows that when they ask for ideas, they sincerely want to know and are committed to taking action on what they learn. 

This kind of asking goes way beyond an open-door policy. In fact, most open-door policies are a passive leadership cop-out. “I’m approachable. I have an open door,” puts the responsibility on the team, not the leader. That’s a problem because most of the ideas leaders need will never walk through their open door. There’s too much friction for employees to overcome: time away from their normal work, not knowing how their manager will respond, or not even realizing they have an idea to share. To overcome these hesitations, ask with intention and build systems that make sharing the norm.

Courageous questions are a powerful technique leaders can use to uncover ideas and cultivate a focus on solutions. Courageous questions focus on a specific, defined issue rather than vague improvement. Courageous questions also include an element of vulnerability. When the leader asks a Courageous question, they acknowledge that improvement is possible. Examples of Courageous questions include:

  • What is the problem with on-time delivery we have that no one talks about?
  • 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 with this project? 

Respond with Regard

When employees feel ignored, have concern about not getting credit, or believe nothing will happen, these aren’t failures to ask—these are failures to respond and respond well. How leaders at every level respond to ideas and feedback will either build momentum or crush a solutions-focused culture before it gets started. 

To respond with regard means leaders receive ideas and react in ways that respect the other person, build momentum, improve employees’ strategic thinking, and generate more useful ideas. This skill is one of the most underappreciated and rarely taught in most leadership and management training. Unfortunately, that lack of training results an epidemic of silence. Help leaders respond with regard by focusing on three principles: Gratitude, Process, and Invitation.

Gratitude. If leaders want more solutions, start with “thank you.” When someone takes the time to think about how things could be better, leaders can appreciate it with a simple, “I really appreciate you taking time to think about how we can do this better. Thank you!” Celebrate solutions, yes, but also celebrate the act of contributing. 

Process. Next, leaders can share the process. Let employees know what happened with their idea and the relevant time frame. It only takes a moment to circle back and close the loop with a team member. If it will take six months before their idea comes up for consideration, explain the other priorities (the employee may surprise their manager with an idea that achieves those more immediate goals).

Invitation. Finally, leaders should invite the contributor to do it again—to think, problem-solve, and advocate for the customer. The invitation to contribute again can take many forms. If their idea needs work, give them the additional information they need and ask them recraft it. If their idea was tried in the past and didn’t work, leaders can share what they learned from that attempt and ask the team member to consider how they might overcome those problems. A sincere invitation will keep the ideas flowing.

Solutions-focused cultures start with leaders who identify clear strategic priorities, ask intentionally, and respond well to the ideas they receive. Over time, these repeated leadership behaviors will shift the culture from safe silence to consistent contribution and give organizations a distinct competitive advantage over others who allow employees’ best ideas to remain hidden.

4 Ways to Respond to an Idea

When managers struggle to respond elegantly to the ideas they receive, it’s often because they feel overwhelmed. To simplify things a bit, here are the four types of ideas they are likely to hear. These four categories can help managers to respond in ways that generate more critical thinking, micro-innovations, and solutions. When an employee speaks up with an idea or suggestion, there are four possibilities and four different responses available. When the employee’s idea is:

  1. Already implemented. Explain where and how the idea is in use and who the team member might talk to learn more.
  2. Incomplete. What additional information can you give the team member? What questions or obstacles do they need to address? Can you ask them to resubmit their idea with the additional information thought through? 
  3. Ready to be trialed and tested. Can you invite the team member to help with the trial?
  4. Not moving forward. What considerations made the idea less valuable right now? Is there additional information that would help the employee come up with a more relevant or useable idea next time?


    The Authors: 

    Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders and the authors of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul.