Great Leaders Aren’t Threatened by Their Employees’ Ideas or Feedback


This Business Insider article caught my eye the other day:

A celebrity chef who owns 26 restaurants explains why he loves when employees shoot down his ideas

I've eaten at a José Andrés tapas restaurant in Las Vegas before. So I was really happy to read a bit about his views on leadership.

When you just make sure that the opinion of everybody counts, [creativity] is just a natural process. Everybody is not afraid of opening their mind up because any idea may be a great idea. Any idea even that may sound very absurd, it is good that you create an environment that everybody will be at ease sharing ideas, and it doesn't matter how crazy they may be or how absurd they may be.”

Great leaders create an environment where people feel safe to speak up. We see this in the “Kaizen culture” (a culture of continuous improvement). Employees aren't afraid of being mocked for having a “bad idea” or an idea that doesn't work out in practice. Even a “bad idea” can be the starting point for a better idea.

As the owner of the business and a leader, Andrés sets the tone that says he's not always right:

“So me, I try to throw very absurd ideas, and what I love is when somebody challenges that, like, ‘Really? No way, José. This is not true. This is April Fools' Day.' But that's good because you create a very easy environment where everybody brings their best ideas forward. And that's what we do all the time.”

If the boss isn't afraid to be wrong, then employees won't be afraid. Trying new things means taking risks. It sounds like Andrés is following the Dr. Deming notion of eliminating fear in the workplace.

In Dr. John Toussaint's excellent book Management on the Mend, he writes about leaders not needing to have all of the answers.

If leaders are expected to have all of the answers, then leaders are also going to feel the need to be right all of the time.

As I blogged about, humility (as a key Toyota leadership trait) isn't exactly common or encouraged:

The Leadership Pond Usually Isn't Stocked with Humble Fish

As Toussaint wrote, no one person has all of the answers:

His comments remind me of Sami Bahri, DDS, “The World's First Lean Dentist,” who, as a practice owner, engages his staff in identifying and solving problems. He took their input into redesigning the way his practice works. Listen to and watch my podcasts with him. Sami is a very humble leader, but that requires strength and confidence.

Toussaint continues, in his book:

“The idea might be difficult for some to accept, but in humility there is great freedom. We can stop pretending to know everything. We can walk through our hospitals without offering lectures.”

In the Business Insider article I linked to, there are examples of other leaders who don't mind being challenged, including Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz and the famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who said:

“I've seen people with underlings who are always telling them they're great and I'm thinking, ‘If you're actually that great, what do you need people telling it to you for? And if you're not, then you're missing possible adjustments that can improve your ability to manage, make decisions, or solve problems,'” Tyson said. “As an academic, I like dissenting ideas, because out of them comes a deeper understanding of how things are or should be.”

I'd hope managers and executives would like dissenting ideas, instead of being threatened by them or labeling dissenting ideas as “resistance” that needs to be squashed.

What do you think?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Honestly, nine times out of ten, my staff have better ideas than me. They probably had the ideas in the back of their minds for a very long time, but nobody asked. Sometimes when they offer ideas, they were told how they won’t work. The least we can do is look into how we can implement ideas, we owe them that much. If it doesn’t work then no skin off anyone’s back. But if it does, and the process is improved by it, everyone benefits. No risk, no reward!!

  2. Comment(s) via LinkedIn:

    Susan L. Martin, MA
    Thanks for sharing your blog, Mark! It’s so refreshing and so important for leaders to remember these important points you raise. As an employee engagement specialist, I have been frustrated by leaders who have not walked the talk … it would be nice if more folks would adopt this mindset. Great read! Thanks again.

  3. Toussaint said it perfectly above, “in humility there is freedom.” For many years in my improvement career I thought that as coach I had to have the answers. I came to truly embrace Lean more deeply once I understood that I didn’t. I learned that humility goes hand in hand with the respect for people concept, because listening to and trying out staff ideas through PDSA is a significant part of that respect, as is developing them as problem-solvers. In addition to this, it’s far more functional for the organization for the staff in the process to have the most ownership of it – not me.

  4. Mark, I’ve been doing this for Fortune 500 companies for twenty years. Thankfully we work only for the CEO and we are the ones collecting the employee’s ideas and pretty much forcing them into implementation. You would not believe how hard middle management and executives fight things they don’t like, notwithstanding that the idea is rock solid. Now we have these debates with management and even with the executives and we never back down if they can not overcome the employee’s justification for doing something. We just humbly agree to disagree and put the item on the CEO’s staff meeting agenda. I present my (the employee’s) case and leave then the blocker is left defending a really dumb blockage. Hardly ever gets that far, only once in fact and it was the ruin of a 27-year career. What we do is to deal with those who can’t or won’t listen to employee ideas, there’s nowhere to hide. We have measured our ten-week impact on the income statement as high as $300 million, combined with a $200 million capital reduction and a $45 million inventory reduction. A corporate bully was sent home, mentioned above, hundreds of policies were killed or altered and previously announced layoffs were reduced by 60%. Your ideas are great, but for twenty years we have had to suspend the client’s culture, politics, and silos to get the results. It’s rare for everyone to be on the same page in any company.

      • Well, actually the CEO is the one forcing the change, we just use the employees to give him the options. When we leave so much has changed that it takes quite a while to figure out whether additional help is necessary. But in the meantime, the bullies are gone, the bad policies are gone or altered, the income statement is up, the stock price is up, morale is up and engagement is up. Of course, people are “forced to change”, that’s why what we do works and why you can’t find anyone else in the EE business talking about results. These changes are from employee suggestions, all we do is get rid of the politics, silos and culture interference. What could be nicer for the employees and investors? I’m curious, do you see change occurring when the leaders are unwilling to change. That’s why companies have CEO’s. The numbers mentioned above were the result of 3900 unique items out of 12,000 submitted by employees. It’s a very friendly approach, the only disgruntled are the managers who were forced to change something because they couldn’t defend continuing it.

        • The way you write this, it seems a bit like you are bullying the executives with this bravado.

          To say nobody else is talking about results, that’s ridiculous. I talk about results through employee engagement and Kaizen and can point to them. Many others can.

          No, I don’t see change when leaders are unwilling to change. There are different ways to go about inviting or encouraging change.

          And my point was that nobody is ever “forced” to change. It’s their decision. It might be just compliance, which might appear to be change. That’s why I asked what happens after you leave.

  5. It is amazing to me when people do not see the powerful benefits of leading this way. It may take a little more time, but it increases ownership of the final decision and people realize most decisions are a learning opportunity.

    • Good question. People do not see the benefits because they’ve never been exposed to this approach? Have they learned that “leadership” means being “the boss” who has all of the answers?

      If they are exposed to a different approach, can they no longer see the possibility of it?

      Tough questions with no easy answers…


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