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Suggestions Anyone?

By: Dr. Jim Goldstein

Over the years, many of the companies for which I have consulted have tried some form of suggestion box to generate ideas on how to improve their processes and productivity.  In almost every case, the suggestion box has not brought about the anticipated results.

In fact, I submit that the suggestion box, unless handled very carefully, can disenfranchise employees and lead to mistrust and skepticism about management and the company in general.

When I ask CEO’s and managers about their experience with the suggestion box they usually have a negative response.  “Most people just used the box to either complain or to criticize their managers, co-workers  and/or our policies.”  “The suggestions we did get weren’t very good or they were rude and offensive.  They also seemed self-serving  i.e., beneficial for the worker but not necessarily helpful to the profitable running of our company. Eventually, we just stopped reading them.”

What they never mentioned was the effects of this experiment on the attitude and morale of their staff.

Despite how they may behave, one of the most important human values is the desire to contribute to others and to do something worthwhile. It’s what makes work (and life) meaningful and fulfilling.

When you offer a person the opportunity to make a difference and then either ignore or minimize their suggestion, you end up suppressing their innate desire to contribute.  It can foster an attitude of distrust and cynicism. Disengagement will soon follow.

So what is the solution? Here are some tips on how to get positive results with a suggestion box:

  1. Start with the belief that people want be valued, do a good job and contribute to the success of the company.
  2. Make the theme of the suggestion box, “What could we do to make things better around here?”  Express an interest not only in those suggestions that will increase productivity and profitability but also those things that would make employees feel more engaged, positive about the company and more likely to think critically.  Complaints are acceptable in the suggestion box but only if accompanied by a viable way to fix the problem as they see it.
  3. Show them how an increase in the company’s productivity and profitability would benefit them in terms of job security, bonuses, etc.
  4. Offer acknowledgment and  a decent cash reward (or its gift equivalent) for anyone who comes up with an idea that you put into practice. In addition, offer a sizable reward and company-wide recognition for the best suggestion of the year.
  5. Respond promptly and thoughtfully to every suggestion. Appreciate people for their good ideas, critical thinking skills and their desire to make things better even if you don’t end up using the suggestion.
  6. If you can’t commit to managing and responding to suggestions, remove the box. Otherwise, it will do more harm than good.

If handled consciously, the suggestion box can increase the level of trust, loyalty and satisfaction among employees and inspire them to improve your working conditions and profitability.  Feeling that they have contributed and seeing how the company’s increased productivity and profitability will positively affect their lives will have them be more likely to identify with the company’s success—now and in the future.suggestion box 2

I’d love to hear your comments below about your experience with suggestion boxes. What worked and what didn’t work? Hope to hear from you soon.




2 responses to “Suggestions Anyone?”

  1. Ian Altman says:

    Jim – Thank you for bringing clarity to the suggestion box. You illustrated a clear action plan to turn the box from a cauldron of complaints to a conduit of constructive input.

    What is your thought on anonymous input? I’ve often discarded anything that people won’t associate with their name.

  2. Thanks, Ian. Sometimes anonymous input should be discarded. At other times, if heard repeatedly, it may indicate a work environment where it isn’t safe to bring up uncomfortable subjects personally for fear of reprisals. It might be a cue that steps should be taken to make the workplace a safe place for constructive feedback and dialogue. I got excellent feedback from Lowell Nerenberg (http://coachlowell.com) and have revised my some of my tips accordingly (above). Reread it if you get a chance. Thanks for the comment. -Jim

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