By David Cotton, freelance business trainer with vast international experience and is the author of The Smart Solution Book (FT Pearson 2016), the most comprehensive collection of business problem-solving and decision-making techniques available.

You’ve just spent a fortune recruiting the best and the brightest young hopefuls to your business and from day one you give them mundane work to do, ensure that they know that they are at the very bottom of the food chain and subtly hint that, when they are grown-ups they can engage in the kind of decision-making that only senior people do.

You invite them to dull meetings in which the loudest and most senior people get the most airtime, you don’t listen to their ideas because you don’t consider that they have the life or work experience to have anything useful to say.  Is it any wonder that, in the annual round of staff satisfaction surveys they report their lack of motivation, you and they each talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and your business doesn’t seem to have moved much further forward since last year.

The truth is, you’re boring them to death!  People are motivated when they feel a sense of involvement and engagement, that they are listened to, that they have some say in their own destiny.  In fact, the greatest sign of respect that you can show anyone is to listen to them.  But why would you listen to people who don’t understand the business as you do?  First of all, their lack of detailed knowledge means that they don’t bring with them the baggage which limits your creativity; secondly, they want to be involved; thirdly, giving them a say in their own destiny is highly motivating.

The Millennials (and many of your new recruits will fall into this category) are not like you.  They have probably seen more of the world than you had at their age.  They have a strong sense of right, wrong and corporate responsibility.  They are highly entrepreneurial and they won’t respect you simply because of your title or apparent seniority – you have to earn their respect.  Ignoring them is not the answer.  And, by the way, they are not going to stay with you long term, so cash in on their ideas whilst you still have them.

Consider, too, that when a business has a problem to solve, the default is to call a meeting of the great and the good (executives/leaders of functional areas) and debate it.  With the best will in the world, the great and the good have met so often in the past that their meetings are stale, predictable and can appear largely scripted.

There exists a wealth of collaborative problem-solving techniques which engage, motivate and stimulate fantastic creativity, because they can involve anyone in the organisation who wants to contribute.  And from those fresh-faced new recruits, you might hear the beginnings of a new idea which makes a real difference to your organisation.

The best known of these techniques are World Café and Open Space.  If you think they are too New Age for you, think again.  One World Café session involved 10,000 people working simultaneously to solve problems.  I have worked with the European Commission and European Parliament, inter alia, using these and other methods to solve problems and make decisions with groups of more than 100 people.  Facilitated well, they are truly democratic processes, which give everyone an equal voice and a platform for discussion and debate of ideas regardless of who first voiced them.  One of the abiding tenets that we adopt in running these collaborative sessions is “Listen with attention and speak with intention.”  The idea is simple – many of us, while listening to others speak, are simply using that time to formulate the next thing we want to say.  Listening with attention means really listening to what the other person is saying and then speaking in response to that, rather than following your own (often disconnected) train of thought.

In organisations in which we have used collaborative problem-solving methods, motivation has soared, creativity has been boosted and the gap between senior management and more junior people has quickly narrowed.  It takes strength, not weakness, for a senior executive to entertain the ideas of a junior staff member; it motivates the junior person enormously to think that someone is listening.

About the author

David Cotton is a freelance business trainer with vast international experience and is the author of The Smart Solution Book (FT Pearson 2016), the most comprehensive collection of business problem-solving and decision-making techniques available.


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