Show Your Work: Encouraging Employees to Share Ideas

In the first article of this mini-series, I talked about “How Managers Can Gain Greater Buy-in from Employees” by showing their work. The idea being that we can get greater buy-in by not just sharing decisions but also by explaining how the decision was made — aligning with one of The Workforce Institute’s Workplace Predictions for 2023.

It’s similar to what we did in school when asked to work on a math problem. Not only did we have to arrive at the right answer, but we had to “show the work” that it took to get there. Showing the work shouldn’t be something that only managers do. Employees can benefit from showing their work as well.

Why Employees Should Show Their Work

There are two reasons employees should show their work. The first is for themselves and their careers. The second is for the organization. Let’s start with the company.

When employees show their work, in essence, they are sharing a proven solution to a challenge or problem. Or they’re sharing a better way to do things. Or a faster way to complete a task. Showing your work is a way to create and share a new best practice. And the organization can share that best practice around the company.

The result? Employees perform better. The organization performs better. Customers get better products and services. The organization’s financial performance improves. Bottom line: it’s a win all around.

Example: An employee is having challenges creating a pivot table in Excel. So, they go to the library, get a library card, and gain free access to LinkedIn Learning. And then they teach themselves how to create a pivot table. Let’s be clear. LinkedIn Learning isn’t going to replace the company’s learning and development department. That’s not the point. But it can be a great on-demand learning tool for employees. And it’s free. If they know about it.

Organizations should want and encourage employees to share their work for reasons like we just described. Are there things that employees are doing that could generate revenue, reduce expenses, and/or improve services that we just don’t know about? And what if we have some employees who hold a long list of these ideas? That’s the second reason that employees should be encouraged to show their work — for their own careers. So, employees should want this too.

Employees who regularly show their work and have a positive impact on the organization are probably the organization’s high-potential/high-performing employees. If they’re not already considered that, then the organization might want to ask themselves why not. These are individuals who are showing the organization how to operate more effectively and efficiently.

True story: Years ago, I worked for a company that would bring a cohort of employees together to discuss the biggest challenges facing the organization. The cohort would agree on the top handful of challenges. We would break out into smaller groups, spend a few months researching the issue we had been assigned, and draft a possible solution. Then the cohort would come together to hear each group’s findings and approve a solution. The executives of the company were there and contributed to the conversation. But they gave the final decision making to the cohort. Because the cohort had to commit to making the solution happen.

Employees want to know that their work makes a difference. They want to know that they have a future with the organization. Creating an environment where employees can openly show their work allows that to happen.

Five Ways Employees Can Show Their Work

Austin Kleon, author of the New York Times bestseller “Steal Like an Artist,” shares tips for showing your work in his book “Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered.” Some of them are commonly used in the workplace.

  1. Open up your cabinet of curiositiesBeing curious is a competency that many organizations are looking for during the hiring process. Ask candidates interview questions about curiosity, such as, “Tell me about a time when you had to teach yourself something.” 
  2. Think process, not product. Organizations should give employees good processes to work with and let them use the process. For example, give employees a problem-solving model that they can use when they’re stuck versus simply asking a manager. 
  3. Share something small every day. Sharing the work does not need to be elaborate. In fact, it’s possible that a lot of showing the work could be small incremental changes that lead to big results. Find time in department meetings and 1:1s for employees to show their work
  4. Teach what you know. Ask employees who are good at a task to teach or train others. See if they will record a short video that can be shared at other locations. Encourage employees to become subject matter experts (SMEs) on topics that interest them. 
  5. Learn how to take a punch. We’re not talking about a literal “punch” here. Showing the work includes being open to questions and maybe even critical feedback. Employees need to know how to process that information so they will continue to show their work. 

Organizations could encourage showing the work by talking about it during interviews, giving employees tools during onboarding, discussing it in meetings, and supporting the learning process. In fact, these actions are already a part of the employee experience. It’s time to make sure that it’s being utilized to its fullest potential.