This article is an excerpt from Insight’s leadership playbook. You are paying for your employees’ knowledge and expertise. Ask for their thoughts to increase their autonomy, improve team communication, and demonstrate the type of leadership you expect from everyone on your team.
When faced with a difficult problem, give your people an opportunity to assist. Ask for their thoughts or recommendations before making changes that impact their day-to-day life. Also, if you’re unsure what to do, others may have ideas.
Why We Ask for Their Thoughts
Seek buy-in to your ideas, and possibly even solicit better ideas thanks to your team members’ different perspective on challenges you are facing. Asking for input into your decisions will increase the sense of autonomy team members feel on your team. It will also reinforce the fact that you are an open and receptive leader, willing to pursue the best ideas in the room.
How We Ask for Their Thoughts
When you make a decision, ask yourself if the decision impacts your team member more than yourself. If the answer is yes, you should absolutely seek advice and recommendations from the team member(s) who will be affected by the decision. If the answer is no, most of the time, it’s still a good idea to seek advice from others to ensure you are not acting—or appearing to act—in your own best interests.
There are two simple ways to approach a team member for their thoughts.
The most effective method is to give the team member context for the factors that are leading you to make a decision. Describe the current problem, contributing factors, and negative results you see from the problem. Also describe the desired outcomes and ultimate goal you wish to accomplish by resolving this problem. Then ask for their ideas on what to do to improve things. If you are familiar with the Theory of Constraints, this exercise mimics the process of building a Current Reality Tree (clearly and logically describe the problem) and Future Reality Tree (clearly and logically describe the desired outcomes you associate with resolving the problem).
Alternatively, you can explain you current idea for how to proceed on some activity and ask for their thoughts. This method frames the discussion around the validity of your idea, which can lead to the team member parroting your own thoughts instead of expressing their own. This is not as effective of a way to discover new ideas, but can help you get some early buy-in to an idea before announcing it to a wider group. The objective of this approach is to hear questions and concerns about your existing ideas so you’ll be able to adjust your decision or approach to announcing the decision with the rest of the team.
It just takes a moment to get thoughts from a team member, and you are not obligated to follow their recommendations.
So what’s the point of asking for advice even if you don’t take it? Team members’ advice may not always be the best for the situation—or you may have more information than they do about the situation—but asking for their perspective is a sign of respect. It also enables you to prepare for reactions from other team members once they learn of your final decision.
Finally, it indicates the type of leadership you expect people on your team to exhibit. You are communicating a desire to seek out the best idea, not necessarily accepting your own idea as the best for the team. Leaders who ask for feedback and opinions are perceived to be more receptive to new ideas, better communicators, and better managers.
Naturally, of course, the best immediate result you should see is a decision for following the best idea in the room. Consistently following this discipline of seeking advice for knowledgeable people you respect will better inform your decisions, give your decisions more weight with team members, and liken team members to advocate for your decisions instead of question their validity.
Amanda has an idea for changing her finance team’s expense report process. One of her direct reports, Ben, will have to change how he approaches some of his work to accommodate this process change. Amanda decides to speak with Ben one-on-one before introducing the process change, to ensure it’s a worthwhile approach to solve their problems.
Amanda: Hey Ben, I was wondering what you think about our expense report process. I noticed that it takes almost two weeks to process an expense report after an employee submits the paperwork. I don’t know how other people feel about that, but I don’t want to wait two weeks for expense report reimbursement if I don’t have to.
Ben: I agree, I don’t see why it takes weeks to approve completed paperwork.
Amanda: I was asking around and it sounds like the delay is partially an issue of priorities and partially an issue of understanding submitted expense reports. Expense report processing falls to the bottom of the list of priorities for Finance because it’s a manual process that takes a lot of time, so people tend to put off processing because it’s frustrating work. Receipts aren’t always attached to reports, numbers don’t match up, and so on, so someone in Finance inevitably has to track down the employee who submitted the report and get the right information before processing the reimbursement.
Now that Amanda has given Ben adequate context for the problem, she will ask Ben for his thoughts and ideas. Amanda already knows what she wants to do, but doesn’t want to constrain Ben’s problem-solving to her preexisting idea.
Amanda: I have some thoughts on what we could do to make this process better for everyone. But first, since you probably fill out more expense reports than most people on our team, I thought I’d see what your thoughts are. What do you think we could do to process expense reports faster?
Ben: Well, I wish I could submit expense reports online. The expense report form is a PDF I can’t edit, so I have to print it off, write out everything by hand, staple receipts to the form, and walk it over to Finance. If I could email everything, that’d at least make my part go faster.
Amanda’s idea is similar, but focuses more on improving the overall process. While, this time, she believes she has the most impactful idea, she can thank Ben for his contributions and incorporate his thoughts into her overall plan, increasing the likelihood that he will happily adopt the process change.
It’s entirely possible that Ben could propose an even better idea, but for the sake of this example, let’s continue the conversation by framing Amanda’s proposal around Ben’s advice.
Amanda: Yes, that would definitely make things faster. Especially for online purchases, where you already have a receipt on your computer. You wouldn’t want to have to print out receipts too, just to attach them to another piece of paper. I like the idea of submitting expense reports via email. But what if we asked our IT team to make a simple web-based form for expense reports instead?
Ben: How would that be better than email?
Amanda: It would allow us to check for certain things before the expense report is submitted, and you wouldn’t have to save off a copy of a PDF to make a new expense report. So, for example, the web-based form could validate that all the required fields are filled in, that proper monetary values are in the cost fields, and that a receipt is attached for each line item in the expense report. That way, we’re ensuring that Finance gets all of the information they need the first time around, they won’t have to try to read everyone’s hand-written notes, and they’ll clearly see which receipt ties to which expense report line item.
Ben: Yes, I love it. That sounds way better. So do you think it will significantly speed up Finance’s processing of expense reports?
Amanda: I believe so, but we’ll have to try it and see. I’ve asked someone on Finance to schedule time once a week to process expense reports from now on to see if we can at least get the average reimbursement time down from two weeks to one week. Now, the only catch I’ve thought of is that this process change means retraining people on how to submit their expense reports. The IT team says they can get a web-based expense report form up and running by end-of-week for us, but we’ll have to ask everyone to start using the web-based form and stop using the existing process. If you make a lot of offline purchases, it will mean scanning in receipts so they can be attached to the online expense report. Do you think that will go over okay with people?
Ben: I believe so, yes. And I’d gladly use a web-based form instead of writing things by hand. I don’t think there are too many offline purchases these days anyway. But if it meant getting reimbursed faster, I’d gladly help people scan in receipts every once in a while!
Amanda: Hah, fantastic! Well, how about we start by having you try out the new process and let me know how it goes?
Ben: I’d love to. This is great. Thank you for thinking about how to get us reimbursed faster!
Amanda: Thank you for your ideas on it! I’m glad we could come up with a solution that sounds like an improvement for everyone.
Amanda thanks Ben for his collaboration on the idea. Ben has now accepted a process improvement and sounds likely to advocate for the change when it’s shared with the rest of the team. Additionally, Ben is going to try out the new process before others, so Amanda will have someone that can help train others on the updated process. Ben will also gladly explain the benefits of this new process to his peers in a way that resonates with them (“this will help us get money faster!”).
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