You’ve heard the phrase “there are no stupid ideas” and while I believe in the overall message, let’s face it: not all ideas are created equal. But how do you tell an employee no without angering team members or worse, causing them to dig their heels in? Just ask two simple questions.
Question 1: I Disagree, But Can You Tell Me More?
The fact is, there will be some “stupid” ideas that will turn out to be brilliant and some “brilliant” ideas that will turn out to be stupid. Know-it-all leaders think they can see this upfront, but they’re wrong. The magic behind this question is how it focuses discussion on great ideas and execution, not ego.
Dan Ariely, Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University explained to me how powerful this approach can be and the exercise he takes his own students through. Ariely is also the New York Times best-selling author of Predictably Irrational, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and other titles.
One of his students had an idea on a project they were working on focused on helping people in Kenya save more money. “I don’t think you could be more wrong, but I’ve been wrong before, so let’s try it.” He told her, asking her to do some more research for them to review together.
If you tell an employee no without properly hearing them out, they will dig their heels out of anger, even if they weren’t all that committed in the first place. When this happens, you are no longer struggling together to find a great idea, but against eachother. An employee’s desire suddenly becomes to prove their superior wrong.
If you’re not open about your true agreement or disagreement upfront, your employee may research or bring data that doesn’t address your concerns. This isn’t fair to them and can easily feel like a wild goose chase. They need the opportunity to ask your reasons for disagreement.
If you’re honest in your disagreement but still come alongside them with a willing attitude to learn, they will be more likely to share flaws in their own ideas and trust you, perhaps killing their own idea.
Listen to my interview with Dan Ariely »
Question 2: Would you like to lead the effort?
Asking someone to lead the effort is the ultimate test of a great idea, not just for them but also for you as a leader. Someone who isn’t serious, or can’t see how to execute their own idea will never lead the effort required to launch their own idea.
The first step for any employee leading a new effort is for them to bring back research, data, and evidence their idea can work and they can execute on it. “What would we need to spend to find out if you’re right or wrong?” Ariely asked this particular student.
This is the point most people will realize their idea is poor, and kill their idea without you saying a word. In the case above, the woman who suggested the idea to Ariely had second thoughts at this stage. “I know you don’t believe in this, maybe we shouldn’t do it.” She told Ariely. Ariely returned with “no, you believe in this, and we have a process.”
As a leader, allowing someone to lead an effort and even giving them a small budget to work with, is a great trust exercise, but truthfully this is the only way for creative ideas to take root.
Ariely says one step to making a more creative workplace, is to give room for employees to try more ideas, especially wild ideas. This means you must be strategic in how you tell an employee no, and agree you have blind spots. (If you don’t think you have blind spots, you are one of many know-it-all leaders.)
Whether the idea worked or didn’t is irrelevant. You can never know upfront anyway. “Even if she goes through this and ends up being wrong, she would have learned something. We would have learned something. It’s not necessarily a waste, it’s an investment in education.” Ariely told me.
Don’t Tell An Employee No. Let Them Find The No
It’s rarely an effective strategy to simply tell an employee no and quickly dismiss their idea.
Ideas are either successful or their failure brings invaluable lessons that lead to even better ideas in the future. And the effect it has on your employees is also vital. “For the sake of her autonomy, control, and joy of work, it’s an investment,” Ariely said.