How do you respond to a bad employee idea?
Let’s face it; despite the tired cliché ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea,’ some are just plain terrible. They may not work, be too expensive, are unsafe or perhaps even illegal. This is not to say that these bad ideas are not worthwhile. What seems like a terrible idea may in fact have great value. Among other things, such ideas are good indicators of where employees need coaching, training, or just more information.
Think about it. What does an employee’s bad idea tell us? Unless offered for nefarious or entirely self-serving reasons, it indicates that the employee is engaged and wants to contribute, but he or she may not understand something or is missing certain pertinent information. Responding inappropriately can quickly destroy this engagement and shut off any future ideas. So how should a superior respond?
Often a good place to start, before commenting on the idea itself, is to ask the employee why he or she thought up the idea – not in a snarky way but with genuine interest. More often than not, the response will quickly lead to a problem (or opportunity) that the employee spotted and wanted to address. This may be a very real issue, but the solution that was offered doesn’t work. After validating the problem, perhaps even complementing the employee on spotting it, you are in an excellent position to coach the employee. Discuss why the solution won’t work and encourage him or her to develop a better solution. This may involve working with the employee to think through the various aspects of the issue and encouraging him or her to consider constraints the original idea failed to take into consideration. Provide any missing information and perhaps identify some additional resources the employee can check out for further insights.
The goal is not to simply find a better idea, but to keep the employee engaged and develop his or her ideation skills. A critical element in handling bad ideas is to assure they are not ignored or summarily dismissed. The employee must be dealt with respectfully and in a timely manner with a clear explanation as to why the idea is not accepted. I generally prefer face-to-face responses because the personal dynamics enables a much richer dialogue, provides the opportunity for immediate coaching, and allows for the identification of training needs. Responding to bad ideas in a positive manner does not come naturally to most front-line supervisors and managers, but a quick training module with some active role-playing can go a long way to correcting this shortfall.
There is one final advantage to direct dialogue. In the course of the discussion, you may find out something interesting. An idea that initially seems terrible may actually turned out to make a lot of sense.