We made sure to eat our veggies, keep our No. 2 pencils within the lines of the SAT bubbles, and wait our turn to get onto the bus.
So why in the world would we jump out of order and tell the boss what the company could do to make things run more smoothly? It's against everything we've been taught. But if a manager goes about things right, good ideas can flow uphill. And maybe, just maybe, we'll all stop saying such things as "They wouldn't want to hear about it anyway." Or "We've never done it that way." Or "My boss won't let me."
It should go without saying that a company should listen to its front-line employees. After all, those are the people who are called on to carry out managers' plans. They likely will know if something needs to be changed, and how. But so many times companies don't listen, employees aren't encouraged to come forward, creative minds assume their suggestions will sink in the bureaucratic swamp.
But some companies, and some employees, have learned to break out of that routine.
Take Joe Perrone. Three years ago, as a regional sales manager for FedEx in New York City, Perrone had a bright idea. Staring out the window, he saw a handful of FedEx trucks sitting in the streets of Manhattan while their drivers made pickups. As it was, small-business customers without regular FedEx pickups would be frustrated hiking past FedEx trucks on their way to the nearest FedEx office. What if, he thought, people could drop their FedEx packages through a slot in those trucks?
Perrone thought his idea could have great implications for the company he started with 22 years earlier. He wanted to give it a try.
He took it to his manager, who told him to go ahead and develop the idea but warned it would not be easy. Perrone had to go through seven different departments and sell the idea to each one. The trick, he said, was to ask them what they thought of the idea, and how he could make it work for them.
"Since I was the one willing to [do] all the legwork, they said, 'If you want to knock yourself out, go right ahead,' " Perrone said in an interview last week.
The final product was a culmination of many of those departments' tweaks and polishes. It took more than a year to accomplish. But without Perrone, customers in many big cities wouldn't be able to drop their packages through slots on FedEx trucks.
Today, there are 1,500 of those trucks nationwide. And Perrone is now a sales executive for the company in Long Island, promoted several times since the big idea.
You don't get fired for making a good suggestion, said Seth Godin, author of "Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea," who now speaks to Perrone's company on the subject. But that is just what so many people are afraid of, especially in today's economy.
I constantly hear from workers who do anything they can to stay in their corner cubicles, meekly keep their heads down, and avoid their supervisors at all costs. They are afraid to speak up and convinced that if they do it will be too difficult to haul their ideas through the maze of executives and departments to fruition. But the attempt can pay off.
Godin said those employees who cower in their cubicles should be doing the opposite. "If you're just doing what you're told, they can hire someone to replace you," Godin said. "The reason we earn our salaries is because we do, not what we're told, but . . . something new."
If employers would listen to their front-line workers, they would be so competitive that they wouldn't need to outsource jobs, or find themselves fighting big-name competitors as much, said Dean Schroeder, co-author of "Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations."
"What we've found is that companies that get lots of ideas from front-line workers are much less likely to find themselves competing with companies abroad," he said.
And apparently, so goes some companies' thinking as well. Boardroom Inc., a publishing company in Stamford, Conn., has a rule that employees must come up with two ideas per week or lose their quarterly bonuses.
Employees submit their ideas on an intranet; the best ideas earn $10, second-tier ideas get $5 and others get ratings such as "LD," which means "let's discuss." All of the company's 72 full-time employees, six part-timers and handful of temps are asked to participate. The rule has been in place for 15 years.
One idea, for instance, was to cut the monthly magazine page size by an eighth of an inch. That saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in postage, shipping and printing costs, said Antoinette Montague-Baugh, vice president of personnel at Boardroom.
"We really feel that it has been the thing that has helped us stay in business when there is no reason in the world we should still be in business, when so many publishing companies have bit the dust," Montague-Baugh said.
The encouragement to come forward with ideas has created a culture of "thinking" at Boardroom. Employees need not come up with a "big" idea. It can be a little one, and it's often those little incremental ideas that build up to a bigger and better job, and bigger and better things for the organization, Godin said.
"If you do it incrementally and realize it won't kill you, you can do it," Godin said. "The way we learn how to do anything . . . is a little bit at a time. Bosses need to create an environment where they all win, because employees think like that."
Time to shut out Grandma's advice to speak only when spoken to.
Question for readers: What sort of management-speak have you run across or even used? And what's the actual translation? You know a "personnel challenge" means it's time to fire someone. What else might we run across these days?
Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday for Life at Work Live at www.washingtonpost.com. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.