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Stagnating Minds Kill Employee Engagement

Stagnating Minds Kill Employee Engagement

"Cross training here is not clarified. We are not set up for success. It's a very wishy-washy subject and no one has straight answers. I don't trust management on this issue and I know employees are given differing information. I don't feel like this company cares about furthering our education or our careers and that makes me sad."

If this was feedback from one of your employees, I think it's fair to say the organization would be under-performing on innovation. We know that for companies to be innovative all employees must feel like they can contribute. Unfortunately, employees at many organizations believe the only way to contribute important ideas is to move up the ranks. It’s a perception that is often grounded in reality, as leaders look to outside hires for fresh ideas.

This chicken-and-egg situation amounts to a hidden barrier for innovation. When employees’ ability to innovate seems dependent on getting a promotion, individual contributors hold onto their ideas. Leaders hungry for innovation often respond by hiring new people to gain an influx of ideas. But this cycle ultimately restricts a company’s growth. Simply put, it is unrealistic to promote everyone and hiring new people is a limited alternative. Although external hiring is an understandable strategy, managers that rely too heavily on newcomers for fresh ideas effectively disregard existing employees looking to engage in more meaningful ways. When those employees are passed over for promotions or are not invited to move the organization in new directions, they feel invisible and build up a reservoir of frustration.

Our data shows that individual contributors are 94 times more likely to experience meaningful innovation when they are offered professional growth opportunities, compared to those without such career development options. The ones without career development options get frustrated.

That frustration often takes the form of complaints about the fairness of promotions. Consider this employee comment from a company that performed below our expectations on the innovation scale: "People are hired based on who they know and who they are related to instead of merit. Its extremely frustrating to work somewhere for nearly 20 years and see people walk in off the street into management positions or positions higher than you. Its been happening for 5-7 years now. It makes you feel like you are working towards nothing. Like you are spinning your wheels."

In addition to unfair promotions, another hallmark of this barrier is when people do not feel they have the authority to engage in professional growth. Organizations often say they want employees to generate ideas, which theoretically can spark professional excitement and a sense of progress. But in practice, many of those same organizations put up bureaucratic obstacles like extensive application and approval procedures. In effect, people must ask for permission to innovate. Employees—and their minds—feel fastened to the status quo rather than free to explore new possibilities.

Take this employee’s concern, for example: “If there was one thing I would change to make this company a better place to work, I would look for ways to increase advancement opportunities between departments and divisions. Working in a small department of a small division of this company, I sometimes feel stuck. I love the work environment and appreciate the many benefits and perks provided to us. I would appreciate more growth opportunities. After being with the company for 7 years I do not want to leave. However, at this moment, I feel there is little chance of upward (or even lateral) mobility.”

Movement of any kind, whether vertical or lateral, is appreciated by employees, even if it’s growing in place. Everyone needs the power to take ownership of projects or tasks that encourage self-directed learning and that have a meaningful impact on their organization. Growth doesn’t always mean attending expensive conferences or training camps. It could be as simple as the space and time to learn something new and apply it to the work at hand. But without readily available opportunities for growth in their current positions, employee creativity will wither—and they may seek greener growth pastures elsewhere.

The mindset is very different in Innovation By All cultures. For employees at organizations with the most inclusive innovation practices, the ability to contribute a new idea does not depend on climbing the corporate ladder. And while the companies typically have systems for vetting suggestions, people in these organizations feel encouraged to speak up. They freely approach their managers for guidance and tactical mentoring – not for permission to try something new.

Flourishing Minds at Wegmans

Jody Wood, for example, didn’t have to get a promotion or follow a bureaucratic process to bring cauliflower rice to Wegmans. Her SVP, Joe Sofia, knew all about Jody’s search for low-glycemic meals for her husband from the company’s Open Door Days and Town Hall meetings and asked Wood if she had any ideas.

This experience isn’t unique to Jody. At Wegmans, roughly 9 in 10 employees say they are offered growth opportunities and 88% say leaders “listen to my ideas and suggestions to improve our work and the company.”

Not only do Wood and her colleagues feel comfortable sharing ideas at Wegmans, but their active minds extend to customer conversations. A striking feature of the cauliflower rice story is that Wood got inspired to learn about a low-glycemic diet from a Wegmans shopper. Talking with customers, it turns out, is typical for Wood in her work. She constantly asks shoppers for suggestions that she can take to her managers.

“I’m right there on the floor with the customer and I hear so much from the customer--what they’re looking for, what things they value,” Wood says. “And so I tell them, ‘tell me something that management might be interested in.’ I say to the customer, ‘I will bring that to the attention of the store manager.’”

This sort of ongoing market research is invaluable. Many companies pay millions for surveys to glean emerging customer trends. Wegmans, meanwhile, has created a culture of curiosity where its frontline employees are gathering market intelligence day in and day out—giving it an innovation advantage.

Wegmans’ edge is not just from its listening culture. It also comes from forsaking bureaucracy in favor of rapid-fire, informal experiments. One of the recipes for cauliflower rice that Wood shared with her managers was a pizza crust. If she had been required to write up a business proposal for that one specific use case, it could have dampened her enthusiasm and slowed Wegman’s progress with starch substitutes. Instead, Sofia was a partner to Wood, giving her the space, guidance, resources, and support to try this out at her store to see what would happen. Cauliflower pizza crust didn’t taste good. So Wood and team quickly pivoted to other cauliflower rice recipes that had more success. When the Bridgewater store couldn’t keep up with the demand, they knew they were ready to scale this product to other Wegmans stores.

When people can flourish, rather than stagnate, in their jobs, everyone wins, including the employee, the company and the business. Follow Wegmans' lead and make sure your people—and their minds—have ample opportunity to grow.


Ed Frauenheim