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The Cost of Ignoring Your Emerging Leader’s Ideas

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I met a fellow keynote speaker at a conference where we both presenting. She was a seasoned entrepreneur who had built a successful business from scratch, so what she had to share with me was surprising.

Karin, I’m so intrigued by this research you’re doing on FOSU (fear of speaking up) and the downstream consequences for employees and organizations. The truth is I’m one of those people. I had such a bad experience when I was 23, that I would never offer my opinion at work again.

I was just out of college and so eager to make an impact in my new role. I had tons of ideas and was always looking for ways to make things better. So I offered my opinion on EVERYTHING. Which as it turns out, was exhausting to everyone around me. I got fired and was completely devastated. After all, my heart was in the right place. I was gung ho. But, the truth is, I was commited but clumsy.

Once I got back on my feet in a new job, I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and just did my job. I had this FOSU thing you talk about in a big way. And I was misearable.

It’s why I eventually had to go start my own business. I knew I would never speak up to an employer again.

Please feel free to share my story.

I hope it can help leaders understand the long-term damage they can do to emerging leaders who may have good ideas, but just haven’t learned the skills to position them well. Also leaders need to understand how easy it is to lose high-potential talent when you scare them into suppressing their best thinking instead of teaching them the skills they need to get their point across.

I thought back to one of my own early-career, well-intended, clumsy moves. I was an inexperienced HR manager attending a meeting on employee engagement where I told a room full of VPs, all with at least a decade more experience than me, that they were completely wrong. But in contrast to my new friend’s experience, here’s what the SVP took me aside and said next.

Karin, You’ve got great ideas, but you’re incredibly clumsy.  As a manager, you don’t tell a room full of VPs that all of them are wrong in a meeting with their peers, and in front of their boss! You quietly take notes, and then talk with a few of them offline to stakeholder your ideas. You really ticked me off, so I couldn’t even process what you were saying. But I’ve been thinking about it and you’re right. I’d like you to lead the HR leg of this project. You help me fix this problem and I’ll help you learn how to navigate politically so you don’t sabotage what could be a promising career. Sound like a deal?

I took her up on her offer, and she became an amazing mentor.

The Cost of Ignoring Your Emerging Leader’s Ideas

When I tell some executives about our FOSU research, sometimes they laugh. “Oh, that’s not OUR issue. Our problem is these damn millennials can’t stop speaking up. They complain about everything.”

“And do you listen?” I ask.

“Some of the time, but after a while you can only take so much.”

Which begs the question. And then what happens? After you’re tired and they’re ignored?

I imagine it’s only a matter of time until they stop trying, or leave.

If you want to create better ideas positioned well, it’s worth the investment to teach them well.

Related: How to Overcome Negativity at Work

Related: 5 Ways to Be More Influential

4 Ways to Help Your Emerging Leaders Articulate Their Ideas

1. Give them perspective.

When leaders come to us wishing their team was more strategic or are frustrated that their employees are all fired up about some small issue that’s not so important in the grand scheme of things, what we often find is a gap in strategic communication. For employees to position their ideas well, they need context. Be sure you’re articulating the “why” behind strategic business initiatives.

2. Provide candid feedback about how their behavior is holding them back.

One problem with over-generalizing about “this millennial problem,” we so often hear about– the feeling that these emerging leaders want everything right now and feel entitled to say whatever is on their minds–is that managers are often afraid to address the issue because they see it as a generation problem, not an individual needing guidance, training, and support. And so, these emerging leaders don’t get the feedback they need and the behavior continues.

They don’t hear that saying the same thing in a different way would be 1000 times more impactful. No one tells them why jumping over their boss to bring an issue to the senior leader without context is a problem.

Here’s the truth. I was a clumsy emerging leader. So was the keynote speaker who got fired from her first job for speaking up. I imagine you were or are one too.

Care enough to have the tough conversation.

3. Build problem solving competencies.

“Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” is the fastest way to get your team to stop bringing you problems. Work to build problem-solving competencies on your team. Try this simple 9 Whats Coaching Model technique as a start.

4. Teach them the power of stakeholders.

In our emerging leader training programs, we teach the V.O.I.C.E. technique for positioning ideas which includes understanding and involving stakeholders and other key influencers.

We don’t just need more people speaking up, we need to help our emerging leaders speak up in a way that can be heard so their ideas can add the most value. It’s worth slowing down and giving our new managers the skills and encouragement they need to do that well.

Your turn. 

How do you your emerging leaders better position their ideas?

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