Sima Shimansky

Taking a Risk on Vulnerability: 4 Ways to Create an Idea Sharing Culture at Work

Idea sharing is a deliberate act of risk-taking. In opening up about your ideas, you put yourself out there and chance the response from people you respect not being what you expect. This can be a scary spot, especially in the workplace.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown, psychiatrist and vulnerability specialist, and was struck by a statement in Daring Greatly from renowned business leader Pete Sheahan: “The secret killer of innovation is shame”. Sheahan explains that work can be a place of shame where people are afraid to be vulnerable and come forward with ideas for fear that their ideas will be ridiculed, or worse, that they themselves will be ridiculed for sharing them:

“Every time someone holds back on a new idea...you can be sure shame played a part. The deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward...Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.“

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her latest book Big Magic, touches on a similar notion of risk-taking in talking about creativity. If you want to live creatively, she says, you can’t let those voices of self judgement, or fear of judgement by family, friends, colleagues, or bosses keep you from practicing your passion and harnessing the bit of magic that fuels the creative process. In other words, the path to creativity is often road-blocked by fear trying to convince you not to share, but being creative means taking a risk on vulnerability.

So how can you empower your team to take this risk?

  1. Be up-front about how decisions are made - Let people know what factors will be used to evaluate their ideas. Be really clear about what type of ideas you’re looking for and what your selection criteria will be. Then, when making decisions and providing feedback, cite these criteria as the reason for your decisions. Putting this structure around innovation lessens the risk of sharing because it provides the opportunity for people to address all of your criteria up front. It also keeps the decisioning team accountable for their decisions to match the pre-defined structure.
  2. Lead by example - Your team will be more amenable to sharing their own ideas once others have done so. If you take a risk by submitting your own ideas, you open yourself up to the same evaluation process and potential criticism from your team. Your team is more likely to take a risk once you’ve already modeled that experience for them.
  3. Make collaboration a part of ideation - Encourage participants to work together to come up with ideas. Collaboration lessens risk by spreading accountability across a team. It also provides team members with a built-in sounding board for their ideas, an opportunity to bounce ideas off of one another, and refine them before unveiling them to a larger group.
  4. Reward idea sharing for its own sake - Recognize and reward people for sharing their ideas and taking the time to participate, whether or not their ideas materialize into innovation. Demonstrating your appreciation incentivises risk-taking, and lets participants know that they are gaining visibility with team leads as a benefit of their efforts.

If you’re running an innovation program at work or even a single innovative endeavor, the risk/shame hurdle might be something you’ve encountered head on, or perhaps it’s the silent innovation killer that’s preventing your team from sharing their ideas. By addressing it proactively, you can increase the flow of ideas from your team and create an idea sharing culture at work. And, by continuing to respond to your team and put resources behind their ideas, you can sustain an innovative culture of people willing to take a risk on vulnerability.