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How to Tell Someone Their Idea 'Sucks' Without Hurting Their Feelings

 

There comes a time for every leader when you’ll be presented with an idea you just can’t get behind. You probably won’t want to make the person feel like their idea is bad, but what’s a leader to do?  Bite your tongue?  Feign interest?  Rip the idea to shreds?  You might find yourself torn between inauthentic agreement and scathing remarks. What you do next shows your leadership style. 

Two Types of Leaders

One type of leader prefers to tell others what to do (coercive) and another prefers to ask questions to guide others to solve a problem with their own ideas (collaborative).  One style is not dramatically better than the other – from my experience, both styles have strengths and weaknesses. 

Employees of coercive managers are used to being told what to do. If an idea is vetoed without explanation, it may come across as patronizing or shading the truth.  While the leader’s intention may be to avoid harm by withholding criticism, the lack of information could do more damage. Coercive managers often don’t know how to compassionately voice their concerns about an idea and will instead say nothing at all or provide crushing feedback. 

The collaborative leader won’t directly say the idea is bad, but prefers to ask questions that will expose the weaknesses of the idea. Asking these challenging questions will be difficult when someone is enthusiastic about their idea.  What if the questioning doesn’t guide them? The collaborative leader’s direction may be confusing and leave the person wondering if they are ‘saying’ the idea sucks without saying it directly. 

No matter which style, or combination of the styles you identify with most, it is in your best interest to handle these situations well. How will you keep the relationship strong, be authentic and guide your employee in the best direction?  Keep these things in mind:

  1. Telling someone their idea is bad is a surefire way to discourage them from making further suggestions.  A great leader, regardless of style, knows there are no perfect ideas.  EXPLORE an idea together by asking provocative and curious questions.  Refrain from using leading or rhetorical questions and stay in the ‘neutral zone’ – not JUDGING the other person or their idea. 
  2. Compassionate disagreement is earned by developing a strong working relationship with someone. Attacking their idea and forcing your own idea only makes you feel good.  Better ideas are not better on merit alone.  If you believe your idea is the only way, you are usually wrong.  A better idea comes out of mutual discovery and collaboration.  You can build a better idea by dovetailing parts of ideas together.  Look for a way to blend the merits of multiple angles.
  3. Leaders may assume their ideas will be taken and implemented, but in reality, it doesn’t often work that way.  It is rare that others buy in to the boss’s idea (they may comply). People are naturally wired to implement their own idea because it makes the most sense to them. Let them! We learn from observing what works and doesn’t work. View this as an opportunity for DEVELOPMENT and to build trust. Trusting leaders empower others to think critically, determine the best solutions and learn through mistakes.

Effective leadership is complex.  There is no one ‘right way’ to do leadership. 

Leadership coaches help their clients explore situations and determine the best pathway for their style and team. Coaches help elevate managers from habitual behaviors and guide them to become better leaders.  Learning, growing, and changing yourself is much easier with a dedicated coach!

 

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