A simple communication tool that works

“No one ever asks for my opinion around here. It’s like they don’t think I have anything useful to add.”

“Sure, they ask for our ideas. But they already know what they want to do. They are just checking the box.”

“Communications around here stink. Sharing ideas is like sending them into a black hole—you never see them again.”

If you’ve ever heard comments like these, listen up. Leaders are missing a prime opportunity to maximize employee involvement and take advantage of the wisdom of their team.

Communications don’t have to stink and commitment can strengthen

Comments like the one above are common. But why? Clearly there are a wide range of reasons communications on vital efforts break down. For example, some leaders accept only statistically valid data on employee opinions like the type they receive in an annual employee survey. Others will just seek out the opinions of a few trusted advisors in an ad hoc manner on key issues. Still other leaders may worry that involving staff members in a meaningful way will require a lot of time and money.

Yet a small investment of time spent involving employees has a big payoff. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, speaks to the value of team members having the opportunity to “weigh in to buy in.” Team members need to have a forum to share their opinions and ideas to be able to commit to major decisions and the organization. Research supports this hypothesis.

“Workers who feel their ideas and participation are valued are likely to make a greater commitment to the organization” (Favero, Meier & O’Toole, 2016)

Catch ball: gather valuable ideas using tiny resources

There is a simple solution for leaders seeking to gather employee ideas more frequently: catch ball. “Catch ball” describes a communication method that opens a dialogue about efforts that have broad impacts. The idea is to throw an idea about a major effort or change in direction—the idea being the “ball”—out to others and be ready to catch the ideas they send back. It takes the place of the one-way download of information from top to bottom that often happens in organizations.

One great use of catch ball is to allow employees to participate in developing a vision, mission, values and goals of an organization or department. You can see an example of the types of questions used to start a catch ball session on one team’s vision/mission/values/goals here.

The benefit of catch ball is two-fold: better ideas and stronger buy-in. Leaders who engage in catch ball sessions benefit from the thinking of their people. Those team members often understand critical paths and see obstacles better than those at the top. In addition, team members are more likely to commit to the effort.

Keys to playing catch ball and winning for your team

The key to catch ball is this: Rather than fully baking an idea, share it while it’s still half-baked so that others can co-create the final product.

Here are some tips for conducting catch ball sessions:

  • Set up catch ball sessions early in the development. Make sure the decision isn’t too “baked” when you schedule catch ball. Leaders should still be open to input and have time to make revisions based on employee ideas.
  • Provide advance notice of sessions. Give people enough time to fit the session(s) into their schedules so that they don’t feel you’re just “checking the box.”
  • Give sessions the time they deserve. Don’t make the sessions so short that there isn’t time to hear from multiple individuals. Most sessions are no shorter than an hour to allow for a short introduction, some questions and ideas from the audience, and any time to gather written input.
  • Invite the “right” people. If you can, cast a wide net to ensure a diversity of thoughts and opinions. Often the best ideas come from team members who are willing to challenge ideas and counteract groupthink. But manage the size of the sessions. You may have to break into multiple sessions if you start getting attendance of 50 or more team members.
  • Clarify expectations about feedback. When inviting attendees and opening the session, be clear about how the feedback will be used. It’s likely that leaders won’t incorporate every idea, so avoid disappointment by making that clear up front.
  • Don’t overtalk it. Team members at catch ball sessions should have something to react to, but the sessions shouldn’t be an opportunity for leaders to speechify and “sell” their concept. Leaders should spend more time listening than talking.
  • Make sure leaders are open to the input. When leaders receive ideas that are somewhat constructive or even critical, they shouldn’t argue or defend. Prepare leaders to listen and say, “Thank you. What else?”
  • Provide options for providing feedback. If you can, provide options for team members to share feedback verbally at the session but also to write ideas down. Although some people are open to speaking in a big group, many aren’t. You want the value from their thoughts, as well.
  • Plan for follow up. Have a way to capture what you hear and share it back out to the attendees so they know their input wasn’t missed. It is vital to close the loop after you take team members’ precious time, even if their specific input didn’t result in a revision.

Catch ball is simple. It takes just a little time and space, but the value of the wisdom of the team is invaluable. Plus they will likely be more ready to support the effort when it is ready to implement.

King County Wastewater Treatment Division vision statement catch ball session participants

For more information on catch ball and how leaders can sustain employee engagement:


Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.