Why You're Probably Missing Out on Your Employees' Best Ideas
It’s not hard to see that managers value outsiders. Every year, American business no doubt spends billions on consultants. A small army of professionals make their living as hired guns who get paid to sweep into organizations with an outsider’s perspective and shake things up. But does this faith in the newfangled and fresh actually come at a pretty steep cost?
That’s the suggestion of new research outlined in an interview with Jennifer Mueller of the University of San Diego and Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, on NPR recently. The discussion delved into research findings from Mueller’s team that show that managers often miss great ideas that are right under their noses and free for the taking.
The Allure of the Distant
The team looked into how the point of origin of an idea affected people’s perception of it. You would hope that whether an innovative idea came from the next cubicle down or a half a world away wouldn’t matter. A good idea is a good idea, after all. But that’s not what the study showed at all.
"We found that when we told people the idea was generated far away, they rated the idea as significantly more creative than when the idea was generated nearby," Mueller explains in the interview.
Why are so many managers missing out on great ideas just because they come from familiar sources? It appears how close to something we are influences how we think about it--things that are familiar get examined in a detailed way, while distant things are thought of more abstractly. "Most creative ideas are risky, and the risks are obvious when you look at the details. So when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you're more likely to shoot the idea down," Vedantam says.
No More Missed Ideas?
For employees, this could possibly be among the most annoying research ever (right up there with findings that show while managers say they value innovation, they actually find it annoying and scary). And sadly, the interview is light on ideas about how to counteract this frustrating bias, though Vedantam does joke that it might pay to call your boss with your great idea and tell him you’re telephoning from Antarctica.
For bosses, too, the takeaways aren’t crystal clear. You can’t excavate unconscious biases like this out of your skull, but you can make yourself more aware of the fact that your knee-jerk reaction to ideas from in-house employees is likely to be unfairly tilted towards the negative in order to compensate for the tendency (and push yourself think twice before calling in that consultant). The interview also suggests that attempting to think about any ideas that come to you in a big-picture, abstract way initially can help you from dismissing them prematurely.
Do these findings line up with your experience? Let us know in the comments.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.