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Employee giving an idea, Erasmus column

What happens when you reject employees’ ideas?

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Rejection of an employee’s ideas can ultimately drive innovation within a company by motivating them to come back with new ideas, writes Dirk Deichmann, assistant professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Research we recently conducted revealed two very interesting findings: the first one is that rejecting an employee’s idea can have positive effects. However, our second finding points to the fact that future ideas of the employee who had his or her first idea rejected, are likely to be just as poor.

This creates an interesting case to be considered for employees, as they hold much of the power to change this.

The impact of rejection on an employee

Let’s look more closely at our first finding. Rejecting ideas that employees submitted to an idea management programme can have positive rather than negative consequences. More specifically, we discovered that those employees whose ideas were rejected were more likely to come back with more new ideas.

This is very interesting because idea management programmes often rely on their employees submitting ideas voluntarily. If the activity is voluntary, however, employees could easily decide to stop submitting ideas when these ideas are rejected.

So why would you continue doing something that is not necessary and where you do not seem to succeed? Prior rejections can trigger a feeling of being positively challenged.

Moreover, rejections can lead to increased persistence, as people try to understand the inherent causes of the rejection. It can also decrease the threshold to take initiative again because of lower expectations. All this can result in more idea submissions by employees.

So why would you continue doing something that is not necessary and where you do not seem to succeed? Prior rejections can trigger a feeling of being positively challenged.

Creating a safe haven for innovation

In the process of collecting our data and spending a lot of time in different companies, we also learnt more about why idea rejections were not perceived as something negative. The key to this is to create a feeling of high safety and a positive innovation climate.

How do you create a safe haven for innovative ideas? Employees should not fear anything when their ideas are rejected – for instance, a negative image, deteriorating career prospects, or a loss of status.

Managers can help in that effort by making sure that their rejections are not visible to anyone except the review committee and the idea initiator. The idea management programme should be a completely independent entity in the company which does not interfere with, or assess, the day-to-day duties of an employee.

Employees should not fear anything when their ideas are rejected – for instance, a negative image, deteriorating career prospects, or a loss of status.

In that way employees feel freer to submit ideas because in case an idea fails or is rejected, this has no negative consequences for him or her.

Getting staff to share high-quality ideas

Let’s now turn to our second finding. Even though people that were rejected are more likely to come back with more ideas, they will more likely be rejected again.

Only the employees who were successful earlier proved to submit high-quality ideas again. Achieving success is a relatively rare event from which employees may learn much more. Successful experiences may give people the confidence and enthusiasm to explore new and better ways of performing tasks.

Also, employees with successful ideas witness the development of their idea from inception to its implementation – and therefore experienced the whole innovation process. This will help them to come up with new initiatives that also fit with the company’s needs and values.

Successful experiences may give people the confidence and enthusiasm to explore new and better ways of performing tasks.

The rising challenge of idea management is to encourage employees with good ideas to return more frequently, and to help staff members with unsuccessful ideas learn from the process.

One thing that managers can do is to provide motivational feedback to people who once submitted a successfully idea. They need to ensure that these people continue to participate in the innovation process.

Managers should also assist those who do come back, but had their earlier ideas rejected. They should walk them through the criteria that need to be met by their idea in every phase of the innovation process. In that way, inventors may get the bigger picture of the company’s innovation strategy and be able to adjust their idea right away.

Another suggestion might be to bring together the experience of those employees whose ideas are repeatedly not accepted, yet who maintain the motivation to try again and again, with those who succeed, but seem to quickly lose the motivation to try again.

In that way the successful idea initiators can serve as mentors, guiding, for instance, less experienced inventors through the process and thereby serving as role models.

Image: Shutterstock



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