Each Monday, BND staff writer Brittney M. Helmrich will answer your questions about careers, leadership, office life and social media in her advice column, "Dear Brittney." Got a professional problem you just can't figure out? Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Dear Brittney" to have your questions featured.
I work in a very collaborative environment. We are encouraged to have and share ideas about how each of our teams could improve. The problem is that many of the ideas we receive from other departments just aren't very good or are impractical for a variety of reasons. How do I encourage people to keep participating in the process while turning down their ideas? If I don't use some of their ideas, sooner or later, they are going to get the message and stop thinking of ways we can improve. Do I use ideas that aren't very good just to keep them interested? Or do I stick to my guns and use only great ideas at the risk of alienating lots of people?
- Critical Collaborator
Dear Critical Collaborator,
It's great you work in an environment that encourages teamwork and creativity like this! And it's even better that you want to continue to encourage your peers to keep sharing their ideas, even when you disagree with them — it shows that you want to succeed and that you're open to new things. But I have to be honest, it sounds like neither you nor your co-workers in other departments are collaborating productively, and that can be frustrating for both sides.
I don't think the problem here is necessarily that the ideas your colleagues are suggesting to you are that bad. Sure, some of them are bound to be subpar or even downright awful. Everyone has a different opinion and a different perspective, and people in other departments are likely not as familiar with all of the little ins and outs of your team and your work as you are, so not every suggestion you hear is going to be a stellar idea. But it's also important to remember that not all ideas are great from the start. Some ideas that seem bad initially can become winners if you take the time to hash out all the details. If it's just you fielding ideas from these other departments and you think their ideas are bad from the start, you're not going to get anywhere. And you're right — if you keep saying no, eventually they'll stop trying, and that will only hurt your work environment. The good news is, there are ways to work around this.
For your part, don't be so quick to dismiss these seemingly bad ideas right off the bat. If you're not already doing so, take the effort you would put into coming up with ways to politely turn down an impractical idea and instead use it to brainstorm with the rest of your team. Don't approach it as if you're looking to confirm what you already think — that this idea is bad — but rather, present it objectively, and really listen to the feedback you get. Have a discussion, lead a brainstorm. See if there's a way to make the idea work in a way that benefits both departments. Try to make the idea better. Because what you might see as something that could never work in a million years, another colleague may be able to see from a different angle that could bring you great success. After all, one person's trash is another person's treasure, right? This should help you turn many of those ideas you'd normally turn down into workable solutions, so you can say no less often.
Now, for your co-workers. (You didn't think I was trying to pin this all on you, right? Don't worry, I've got your back!) It sounds like the other people you're working with in other departments don't really understand what collaboration is. Collaboration doesn't mean that the other person or team just takes your idea and runs with it. Successful collaboration calls for compromise, and it sounds like maybe these other departments are asking or even expecting you to just do what they suggest without hesitation. If that weren't the case, I'm guessing you wouldn't be worried about alienating them in the first place. Your half of the compromise is being willing to delve deeper into an idea and look at it from different perspectives, even if you think it's terrible. And for each of the co-workers giving suggestions, their half is being willing to accept that their ideas could use some work before they're ready to be implemented, if they ever are. You'll have to work together to solve this problem.
So how do you deal? When you're presented with one of these bad ideas, politely (and genuinely) let your co-worker know that you value their suggestions. Say that while you don't know if the idea would work as-is, you will talk to your team and see if there's a way you can make it work. And that brainstorm session you're holding with your team? Invite the colleague who made the suggestion, and maybe a few others from the same department, to take part.
If they accept your invitation and are willing to work it out with you, that's great. If you can all come to a happy medium that works for everyone, that's even better. If you really still can't find a way to make the idea work, you won't have to approach your co-worker with an, "I'm sorry, but we can't use this idea," speech, because they'll have been a part of the conversation from beginning to end. And if they decline the invitation altogether, well, that's their problem. At least you can say that you gave them an opportunity to be heard. If your team doesn't find a solution without that co-worker present, then you can politely say that you ran the idea by your team and couldn't find an appropriate way to implement it. Add that you look forward to hearing more suggestions and finding a way for your departments to work together in the future.
At the end of the day, you're responsible for the integrity of your work. If other people in other departments are simply throwing suggestions at you and expecting you to just implement their ideas without workshopping them or reaching a compromise — and if you and your team can't find a way to make your colleagues' bad ideas better — then definitely stick to your guns.