3 Ways to (Nicely) Handle a Bad Idea

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There’s nothing better than when someone on your team comes up with a great idea. But unfortunately, we can’t all have strokes of genius all the time—and eventually, some duds are guaranteed to make their way to the office whiteboard or Monday morning meeting.

While it may seem obvious to you when a suggestion should be sent directly to the circular file, it’s not necessarily quite so clear to the person sharing it. But, when you’re managing a project or a team, you can’t always just say that. How you respond to lousy ideas can have a significant impact on people’s future performance, not to mention morale and general office harmony.

Fortunately, there are a few tips I’ve found useful when you’re handed a disaster of an idea to avoid shattering your colleagues’ self esteem—and maybe even yield better ideas in the process.

1. Ask For Clarification

Sometimes, the best way to get an idea that just isn’t workable off the table is to highlight its flaws. If you’re given a particularly legless proposal, ask your colleague to explain in more detail how he would address the areas where you feel the plan is lacking.

Here’s a fictional example (although I actually love this idea): Let’s say a colleague suggests that everyone in the office should be mandated to eat beancake and fried egg for breakfast every day as a way of ensuring the team has enough protein and won’t be hungry at 10 AM. But you know several employees that have heart conditions, not to mention some vegans, and a few individuals that don’t eat pork for religious reasons. Sadly, bacon just isn’t going to work.

But rather than simply blurting out that her idea is ridiculous, you could ask her to provide more detail, letting her share how she would address all those in the office who have dietary restrictions.

When you ask someone to think through the holes in her proposal, she may come to the realization herself that her idea might need some work, and gracefully withdraw it to do a bit more research.

2. Pretend It’s Your Only Option

This is a tougher approach, but it also has the potential to transform a crummy idea into a great one: Before making a judgment on an idea, try to see if you can make it work.

Why? When we’re forced to accept a certain outcome, we naturally switch to problem-solving mode, which often leads to some pretty creative solutions. Plus, inspiration comes from all kinds of different places, so chances are, somewhere in that lousy idea, there’s some nugget of a good idea just waiting to be found.

Considering the idea from above, pretend that the “beancake and fried egg” is your only option. How can you make it work? bean cake and cooked egg? just bean cake? Offering a variety of other protein-packed breakfast choices for your employees?

By switching gears a bit, and talking through how to make a bad idea work, you just might find that a great idea develops. And if not, your colleague will at least know you made a real attempt to collaborate and develop her idea, rather than just shooting it down from the start.

3. Put Yourself In Her Shoes

Of course, there are some ideas that you’ll just have to veto. In this case, one of the most important reminders I give myself before handing out feedback is to consider how the other person might feel when receiving it. Try remembering how you felt when someone shot down one of your ideas—you can probably think of a few ways the bearer of bad news could’ve delivered the message with a little less sting, right?

Phrase your comments in a way that will take into consideration any sensitivities your colleague may have (e.g., did you reject the last four ideas she’s had on this topic already?), and deliver your message with empathy. By taking into account how she might hear your feedback, your message will likely be much better received.

That said, don’t sugar coat it—you don’t want her to feel you’re giving any special treatment. My tried and true method is to start by identifying the merits of the idea first, then point out where it needs work, taking care to be constructive, not critical. Last but not least, always close with a positive word—you want her to keep trying!

The best way to generate great ideas is to cultivate an environment in which everyone feels like his or her ideas have a fair shake. Not every idea will be the next best thing, but follow these steps, and you’ll ensure your colleagues keep trying. And who knows? You just might find that diamond in the rough in the process!

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