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Why Your Managers Should Suck -- In a Good Way

It's not easy to get your best ideas out of your best people. Which is why, sometimes, you need managers who suck.
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Two managers we’ve been working with lately were described to us as “sucking.” The meaning was very different in each case.

A team member described the first manager in glowing terms: “He literally sucks the creativity out of you. He demands you give him your best ideas, absolutely demands it, and he’s willing to try just about anything if you believe it will make the company better. I love working for this guy.”

That manager sucks, but it’s a good thing.

The second manager was described by an assistant manager in this way: “It’s like working for Eeyore. He has sucked the life out of me. You know, I came here with a lot of good ideas. That’s why I was hired. But it takes so long to get him to listen and change his thinking on anything. When one of my ideas was finally implemented someone said to me, ‘You must be so proud,’ and I laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m exhausted. It was like chopping down a tree with a hammer.’ From now on I think I’ll just be quiet and do my job.”

In our travels we find very few innovative companies. It is rare indeed to come upon an entire organization brimming with the determination and courage to break new ground. No, what we do find--everywhere we go--are pockets of innovation. These oases of innovation are departments, branches or teams that have found unique and profitable ways to serve their customers. Many entrepreneurs we speak with tell us about these groundbreakers with pride.

The difference between great organizations and the average ones is whether they allow these rule-breakers to shine and thrive. The great companies give the rulebreakers funding and leeway to challenge the status quo; the poor and average organizations bring these innovators back into line.

We visited one Fortune 10 company where one division had introduced a fun new credit card--completely out of character for the venerable firm--that generated $1 billion in new income its first year! Since the project was so far out of line with corporate standards, corporate marketing and sales quickly took it over. The result? A 90 percent drop in revenue in its second year.

A senior executive at the firm jokingly admitted to us: “You have to understand, we can’t help ourselves. We hate outliers.”

In what we refer to as an All In Culture, innovation is about more than including your people in problem solving. No, this is bigger. It’s about sucking the best ideas out of people, of treating your talent as equals in an effort to enhance your culture and help people feel motivated to excel and give their full effort in every aspect of their work.

The bottom line is this: Your people have more energy and creativity to give. In your organization, right now, there are employees walking around with brilliant ideas in their pockets. Some will never share them because they don’t have the platform to launch those ideas on their own. Most, however, will never reveal them because they don’t feel like a partner in the organization. Many feel insignificant and unheard in the corporate culture.

How do you get your people to “empty their pockets?” To show you their very best, most unusual ideas? Related to this: Why does it feel like so many managers don’t want their people to share their ideas? Why don’t more managers want their people to feel like partners?

One best practice: We believe every organization should have a designated ombudsman who is accountable for listening to employees. This ombudsman is not their boss, but a person with some influence who is tasked with evaluating employee ideas and, if they are viable, helping present them to management.

The point is, innovation happens in the trenches. Suck those great ideas out of your people.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Jun 4, 2013

CHESTER ELTON AND ADRIAN GOSTICK | Columnist

Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick are the founders of The Culture Works, a global training and consulting company focused on creating great places to work. They are also the New York Times best-selling authors of All In and The Carrot Principle.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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