boss won’t let me come up with new ideas

A reader writes:

I am a dreamer. I have lots of ideas and I can see the big picture easily. While in school I wrote articles and presented at conferences, but was met with lots of frustration with the people I was sharing my ideas with because I obviously didn’t know how to fit my improvements into their job. Most complained they were too busy or too bogged down to really implement anything I dreamed. I took a job 2 years ago to gain in-the-trenches experience and really implement my ideas.

The company I work for misrepresented themselves in the interview. While I get to work on many projects, I’m managing other people’s ideas and am never given the freedom to implement my own. My boss has reined me in, limiting what areas I can suggest improvements for and now who I can talk to. (When I talk to employees similar to my age, we tend to come up with many ideas but are told that the company can not do them for various different reasons. My boss suggests I not talk with these individuals because then I wouldn’t have as many ideas.)

While I find the professional experiences I’ve gained here very valuable, I’m miserable. However, with the economy the way it is, I’m afraid to apply for new jobs because I’ve not lost mine, I’m just unhappy. Last year, I was hospitalized for stress-related pain and I’m frightened to apply for a job and lose the health benefits and trust I’ve built at my current job. What advice do you have?

Without hearing your manager’s perspective, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here. There are a few possibilities:

1. You are coming up with good ideas and your boss is shooting them down for reasons that aren’t legitimate — he’s lazy, he doesn’t like change, he feels threatened by ideas that aren’t his own, he takes new ideas as criticism of his own way of doing things, etc.

2. You are coming up with good ideas and your boss is shooting them down for reasons that are legitimate — for instance, the ideas would require putting time and resources into areas that aren’t priorities for the company right now and would pull them away from areas that are.

3. You are coming up ideas that actually aren’t that great or that simply aren’t good fits for the company.

I have no idea which of these three it is. I’ve worked with bosses who were horrible roadblocks to change and they eventually drove off all creative staffers who got tired of hearing “no” all the time. I’ve worked with people who had fantastic ideas and we still couldn’t implement all of them, for legitimate reasons (although we implemented quite a few). I’ve worked with people who had a flow of ideas so constant that it did become annoying, because while fresh ideas are great, it can’t get to the point that it’s disrupting people’s ability to get their work done. And I’ve worked with people who saw themselves as visionaries but most of their ideas were terrible, and they sulked and sulked because their terrible ideas weren’t used, and I’m sure they’re out there right now complaining about how their brilliance was unappreciated.

Good managers encourage fresh thinking and create a welcoming environment for new ideas. If they don’t, people stop making any suggestions, and that’s bad. If your boss is doing that across the board, he’s a bad manager. But if he’s only doing it with you, it points to a problem between the two of you. (Although if he has concerns specific to you and hasn’t raised them candidly, he’s also a bad manager.)

Anyway, here’s what we do know: The fact that your boss is limiting the areas you can suggest improvements in says that, at a minimum, he wants you to stop spending time this way. I think we can be sure that, if nothing else, you’re annoying the crap out of your boss.

If you want to stay at this job and do reasonably well (at least while you’re under him), you’ll need to change your approach. You can either rein it in, or you can tackle it more head-on. That would mean sitting down with your boss and saying, “Hey, I definitely get that you want me to make fewer suggestions for change. Can you give me some feedback so that I’m on the same page as you about this? Were my ideas just not that good, or were they potentially good but not areas we want to be focusing right now, or something else? I’m open to whatever the answer is.”

This will give you interesting information. Be open to whatever he says, even if you ultimately decide you disagree with him.

If you do decide to look for a new job, keep in mind that in many fields, it’s pretty hard to find a job that’s built around being an idea man/woman. Not in all fields, but many. And often getting that kind of job requires getting more experience first. If you can do it, great. But if you look and you’re not finding what you want, be open to the idea that your expectations aren’t in line with the reality of the type of work you do. At that point, you might consider other types of work that would fulfill those expectations or even working for yourself (where no one gets to block your ideas).

Good luck!

{ 13 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Thank you for your response. I am thinking that my manager is slightly poor. I know that I come up with many ideas and throw them out there knowing that its ok if 80% are shot down because its not feasible at this time. The frustrating part is that when I tell my coworkers my ideas, and we work on them together my boss will implement them if someone else suggests them. About half of the ideas I’ve shared with my boss were proposed later by colleagues and implemented, So I don’t think I have terrible ideas, just maybe terrible delivery :D.

    I’ve talked to my boss about this but often she doesn’t remember the conversations we’ve had about the ideas in the first place and became upset when I was keeping track of our conversations in a notebook and reminded her of a conversation we had previously she didn’t remember, so I stopped keeping the notebook.

    We have opposite personality types and I think I would work better with a boss who understood what I was saying and understood the ideas I have, because part of me feels that it may just be her. Everyone else loves me including my boss’s boss.

  2. A Girl Named Me*

    I suggest that the original writer approach the boss with something like, “I have a couple of great ideas that will save the company money and won’t take much time to implement. When can we meet to talk about these?”

    And then..have those ideas very well organized. Be prepared to discuss the intimate details of the plan. What are the steps involved? Which other employees will need to be involved? What are the costs / savings? What problem does this solve? What other projects will suffer as a result of taking on this project? What is the timeline for completion and how will success be measured?

    Oh yeah, if you’re coming to me with your oh-so-brilliant idea, it had better have loads of thought behind it, and show that you invested your time, and did your homework before you lay it in my lap. Because, dude, I don’t have time to think through all of the details. Convince me that it’s worth my time by spending your time before our meeting to think things through completely.

    If your delivery really stinks, have a co-worker join you and present the idea a team. Strength in numbers.


  3. Erica*

    I once had an intern who considered herself an “idea person.” It was exhausting. Besides her ideas usually being completely out of left field, she spent so much time being a genius, that she never actually hunkered down and did the job. If she did, maybe her ideas would been a bit more looted in reality. But instead, I spent more time figuring out how to explain to her why palm trees in the lobby would not help productivity, even if “relaxed people totally don’t get sick as much” and if she could just stuff those envelopes without using the spring water because the lack of chemicals made them extra “stickier” then, that would be great.

    (Sense some leftover exhaustion?)

  4. John-Lee H*

    Looks like a tough problem. The advice presented so far is great.

    If your boss is not receptive to the ideas you present, but is receptive to the same ideas presented by others, it’s likely that this is really a problem with how you’re communicating those ideas (you hit the nail on the head by saying it may be terrible delivery).

    My gut feeling is that you are overloading your boss. You are simply presenting too much.

    It helps me to think of it this way. If 4 in 5 of your ideas are unfeasible, your boss is likely to start thinking that ALL your ideas are unfeasible. Managers are bombarded by so much information, that they may unconsciously create simple rules like this to help them cope. They are human after all, and as such have “bounded rationality”. The manager likely already has a precondition built up in their mind that if an idea comes from you, it’s not going to fit the realities of the situation.

    Try to think which ideas are feasible and fit with the direction of the organization and your department. Try and figure this out before you present any ideas to your boss. Then present them, one at a time, when it is appropriate. As “A Girl Named Me” suggests, being prepared is crucial to you vetting out the idea. Make sure you let the idea die if you find they don’t make sense.

    One final thought, NEVER think that if you tell anyone anything once, twice, or even three times they will absorb it. Throwing it back at them with a notebook that has a log of all your conversations doesn’t seem like a good idea either. Again, they are just human, and have 5 million things going through their head. Instead reflect on why your manager didn’t get the message the first time, and try and improve your method of communication.

    I hope it goes well from now on.
    Good Luck!

  5. HRD*

    Personally I think the answer is in you original question and subsequent comment under “anonymous”.

    Statistically speaking all of your ideas will not be good and it sounds like you are having ideas and thenn just throwing them out into the ether expecting people to take them seriously and work with them. My guess would be that the fact that you are doing this constantly leads people to judge them as being “another harebrained plan”. This is backed up by the fact that when they are presented by someone else they are given air time and adopted.

    My advice, reflect on the ideas a little. Accept that some of them will be rubbish and weed these ones out. Work on the good ones, do a little due diligence in preparation and then pitch with confidence.

    It sounds like at the moment you are in the same situation as the boy who cried wolf.

  6. Kerry*

    Wow, you’ve got some exceptionally good advice here.

    The only thing I can add is that I’m a little concerned about your comment that “the company misrepresented themselves in the interview,” and that you’re stuck implementing other people’s ideas instead of your own.

    In my experience, people who say, “I am a dreamer” need a LOT of experience implementing ideas. A lot. They’re great at thinking them up, but nature doesn’t make people who are good at EVERYTHING, so they tend to be less good at the get-it-done part. As AAM says, it’s hard to get a job as a professional idea person. You’re going to need to know how to implement, and unless you’re really self-absorbed, you’re going to need to implement other peoples’ ideas instead of just your own.

    The company is actually offering you very valuable training by letting you learn how to do the implementation part. That can really only be learned by doing it over and over, for a long time, with a variety of projects. That’s how you become effective, and all of your great ideas will be FAR more valuable if you have the implementation experience as well.

    I’d also add that you have to earn the opportunity to implement YOUR ideas. You need the extensive experience in budget management, navigating corporate politics, gaining buy-in, etc. to be effective. You and your friends may be ready to change the world there, but if the world isn’t ready, you’re going to bomb. These things aren’t as simple as they appear.

  7. class-factotum*

    When you have an idea, write it up. One page of the idea, exactly what it will accomplish (how will this make $$, improve productivity, gain us new customers or share), what it will take to accomplish it, people, $$, and other resources, timeline, specific steps, obstacles, etc.

    You really think this will work? Convince me. Do the work. Don’t give the the Big Picture and make me figure out the details. Maybe then I’ll consider it. Otherwise, don’t waste my time. Oh — and make sure you still get your real job done.

  8. Anonymous*

    You’re an idea generator. This is good. This is valuable. This is your strength. Develop it.

    This isn’t all your boss or company needs.

    Ponder the given lists of resources needed to get an idea implemented. Who in your age group at work has strength in budget, who excels at buy-in from others, etc? Use their strengths to augment your own.

    Who gets approval for ideas that you also had? Take them out for lunch or coffee or whatever and ask them to help your group sort the ideas you have and guide you in making a case and presenting it.

    People won’t hold your hand every moment or do all the work for you, but you’d be surprised at the help and quiet support you get if you ask.

    I don’t need to add, without neglecting the work you were all hired to do in the first place, do I? Of course not.

    A young group that learns to develop their talants, works as a team with others in the company, can build a case for an idea, and squash the bad ones at hatching, and take that great idea through to implementation with the resources the company has, is a real asset to said company.

    Good Luck!

    And be sure to give credit where credit is due. That will insure others buy in next time.

    Lois Gory

  9. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    This letter reminded me of someone I work with. She always has “ideas.” Her ideas aren’t bad but she wears on you with constant suggestions on how to improve things. The constant barrage of suggestions has become so annoying that any new suggestion is viewed as annoying.

  10. Productivity Guy*

    I agree with Rachel. From the sounds of it, you’ve become annoying to the point where even good ideas are ignored. While idea generation is great, for most companies right now they want to be implementing, implementing, implementing – I would tone it down for a few months, just put your head down and work, and then come back to your manager after that with three projects that are easy to implement and will either help reduce costs or generate revenue. I’ve had employees like you, and while I recognize that they have good ideas, it just becomes distracting after a while because I want you to do a certain job and I don’t want you and others going on tangents.

    It’s all about the right time and place, and while this economy should be the perfect time for innovation, in reality, many companies are shying away from innovation just to get their sh*t done to survive.

  11. Anonymous*

    Let me get what the OP is saying:

    1. in school the OP constantly bombarded people (I’m reading faculty and other students) at conferences with “brilliant” ideas – they were rejected

    2. at work the OP bombard their boss with “brilliant” ideas – they are rejected

    3. the OP gets together with friends at work and comes up with a lot of “brilliant” ideas that they bombard the company with – they are rejected.

    Hmmm… maybe the ideas are rejected because they’re not so “brilliant.”

    If someone says they can’t see how the “improvements” fit into the job or your boss says to stop hanging around with your work friends because he wants you to stop having so many ideas, that’s not exactly a subtle hint to stop suggesting “improvements” and to buckle down and do the work the company hired you to do.


  12. Anonymous*

    Maybe it’s me but the OP’s post screams overindulged condescending brat. The kicker is they probably do have some good ideas but who would want to work with them?

    My only suggestion is that the OP go to work for their parents. They created this mess – there’s no reason the rest of us should suffer.

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