my coworker won’t contribute ideas

A reader writes:

Recently, a new colleague has joined my team. My boss has instructed us that we have to work very closely together as a team to deliver on goals, but whenever there is a brainstorming session, she never fails to say “I don’t know,” and I end up being the one coming up with all the ideas.

I tried bringing this up with my boss, and she said I’ll have to iron this matter out with my new colleague. Is there is a way of politely telling my new colleague that she can’t always give an “I don’t know” answer and needs to pitch in and do her part?

You can read my answer to this question over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today.

Plus, three other careers experts are answering this question there today too. Head over there for all four answers…

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Amouse*

    She just sounds new and insecure. I agree that being direct with her is the best approach. She has to snap out of it at some point especially if she was hired to brainstorm as part of her job which it sounds like she was.

  2. Jamie*

    Are you given the topic prior to the brainstorming session? Because as Alison mentioned in her response not everyone works best in a group session. But if it’s not sprung as a surprise there’s no reason she can’t prepare.

    I’ve been in this situation before and it’s infuriating. I’m not an idea person – I’m a functionary/detail person. You come up with your idea and I’ll map out the processes to get you there – that being said I’ve never come unprepared to a brainstorming session…so if I can do it, pretty much anyone can.

    1. Cassie*

      I can’t think of ideas on the spot either. Even when people are tossing ideas back and forth, I have nothing. Then, on the way back to my desk after the meeting, I’ll think of a better idea. I hate this. It’s not that I don’t want to be prepared before the meeting, but sometimes I have to hear what other people are thinking first before I can say “wait, I think this is a better way to get your desired outcome”.

      It’s possible the colleague is new to the field or just isn’t used to voicing her opinion. I was in a ballet class once where it was just me and another girl (she was a teen, I was a few years older). The teacher had us dance facing each other and give each other corrections. Her responses were basically “Cassie did this really well, she did that really well…”. She wasn’t used to giving feedback and probably didn’t feel comfortable doing so either. I, on the other hand, had no problem giving her corrections because I was used to evaluating dancers (I had taught a few classes myself, and I had more of a critical eye for that kind of stuff). Maybe as the colleague gets more familiar with her position and the brainstorming sessions, she’ll become more vocal and contribute more.

      I’m not sure how I feel about applying a bit of pressure on the new colleague. I would feel embarrassed about having to come up with ideas on the spot, because I know I couldn’t. At the same time, I read somewhere that people learn and remember better when there is some pressure (like a deadline or something) – so maybe asking for people to come up with 2-3 suggestions/ideas before the meeting would be a good solution.

  3. Jesse*

    You didn’t mention if its just you and her, or if its a group. I work in a team of five. Sometimes when I have ideas, I’ve been told “That’s not going to work.”

    Sometimes there’s a valid reason for it not working. And sometimes its my coworker saying that because he knows that he’ll get stuck doing the work. (My boss tends to give him all the big projects. So even if I can handle it, she’ll hand it over to him anyway).

  4. Liz T*

    I like the suggestions that they brainstorm separately and then pool ideas. My Social Psych professor taught us that that’s the most productive way for groups to make decisions, because when everyone brainstorms together people fall prey to “social loafing.” That’s exactly what this sounds like!

  5. Dana*

    I concur with Alison’s advice. I am not someone who does well with “on the fly” brainstorming or ideas. I was always the girl in the back of the class who got her papers back with comments like “why won’t you contribute in class? you have such great ideas!” I need to think about and write out my ideas before I talk about them. So my guess is that your new coworker is a) intimidated b) not good at coming up with on-the-spot ideas and c) uncomfortable and/or not confident about the ideas she’s coming up with. That’s where the advice to have non-work conversations with her comes in.

    1. Kit M.*

      “why won’t you contribute in class? you have such great ideas!”

      Yep, I’ve gotten that one a lot. I have (accidentally) solved this problem in a couple of instances by saying really stupid, incoherent things during class. Then my professors stopped making those comments.

    2. Hari*

      +1!!! We are twins. I’ve definitely gotten those remarks before, specially in subjects philosophy. My thing is I’m sort of a perfectionist when it comes to ideas. I need time to think. Also I am critical too, so instead of throwing a half-baked idea out and have someone else point out the folly, I am able to do that myself. However in order to get the participation points in class and to stay contributing at work, I’ve just learn to throw out the ideas anyway. Even if you see the folly in it you never know how your idea may spark someone else’s. Its why they call it brainstorming.

  6. KayDay*

    In addition to not being an ideas person, she might just be new (as the OP said) and not sure how the team works. Many people aren’t comfortable contributing ideas when they are new. I like Alison’s idea of asking her more directly for her input (e.g. “We need to come up with ideas about how to approach this, so why don’t we each brainstorm on our own and come back with two ideas?” Or even, “I’m all out of ideas. Can you cover this one?”).

    Also, she might just want to have a moment to think it over by herself, so next time she says “I don’t know,” perhaps respond with, “well, I can’t think of anything right now either, could you let me know tomorrow if you think of something overnight.”

    I really don’t like the idea of asking her the best way to approach it; I generally find that people aren’t very good at verbalizing the way they work best. Instead, it’s better just to give people at bit of autonomy, remain available for questions, and let them show you how they work best (e.g. if they want to collaborate more, they will probably come to you with questions. If they want to work alone, they will probably do so). If you do need to ask them, it’s better to use more concrete language, e.g. “would you like to think about this by yourself, or do you want to bounce ideas off of one another?”

    1. twentymilehike*

      I generally find that people aren’t very good at verbalizing the way they work best. Instead, it’s better just to give people at bit of autonomy, remain available for questions, and let them show you how they work best

      I really like this statement! I mean really, really like it. As someone who is a complete clam when uncomfortable, yet won’t stop talking when I am, I could never even get close to vocalizing that discomfort and why I get like that, let alone vocalizing an alternative without some time to really think through it.

      It will take some time to get into a rythm with each other, but it sounds like your boss has allowed you the freedom to find the best way for you to get the job done without the threat of being micromanaged. Actually, it sounds like a situation that could end up being a great growth opportunity!

  7. Jamie*

    I’m wondering if she knows what you mean by “come up with ideas.”

    I’ve been in brainstorming sessions where literally this just meant shouting out whatever pops into your head where it’s listed (good and bad – doesn’t matter – all ideas are listed) and then the good ones fleshed out later. OR could she be expecting to have to have back-up already in place before tossing out a suggestion.

    I.e. if the topic is cutting down on OT could she ask about perhaps adding more shifts? Or would she need the CBA on that, including labor dollars and availability etc – with the knowledge of whether or not there is enough sales in the pipeline to justify it long term.

    She may come from a place where they didn’t spitball – but ideas needed to be backed up with at least some preliminary data. This could be more daunting for a new person.

    1. Henning Makholm*

      That’s a really good point. There can be a strong psychological barrier against voicing an idea with the risk that more experienced coworkers will be able to see problems with it immediately. And it’s hard to break that down with explicit reassurances that ideas don’t need to be perfect.

      How about (imperfect idea follows!) next time explicitly assign her the task of sketching a baseline, stupid inefficient labor-intensive by-the-book way to solve the problem at hand “so we have a target to shoot at and know which plan B we’ll need to fall back to if we fail to come up with something better”? Having formulated the baseline alternative herself may make her less reluctant to point out ways it can be improved.

  8. Tiff*

    Come up with the ideas and assign the idea-challenged colleague some tasks. If she wants to be a subordinate treat her like one.

  9. Good_Intentions*

    As usual, I find myself in agreement with Alison’s advice.

    The letter writer’s shy co-worker likely needs some space and time to articulate his/her ideas on paper prior to discussing them in a brainstorming session. This will also increase the chance that s/he contributes a range of more well-formed ideas with details and a general timeline.

    Most people (a generalization, I know) tend to provide details in writing that are sometimes more difficult to verbally articulate in a brainstorming session. Also, asking for a specific number of ideas: sending out an email 48 hours before a brainstorming meeting asking her for at least two ideas on a particular subject with the included necessary agenda (save company money, expand marketing reach, increase efficiency, etc. in mind).

    Unfortunately, some people need very direct prompts from co-workers to become initiated into the work culture, which I hope is the extend of her “I don’t know” syndrome in meetings.

  10. The Other Dawn*

    I agree with Alison’s advice. Maybe this woman just isn’t an idea person or maybe she is, but can’t do it on the spot. Some people need to walk away and digest the information on their own and mull it over. I’m that way. I totally clam up when I’m in a meeting and someone asks me for an idea. I’m like a deer in the headlights. But then I go back to my desk, think about it, sleep on it, and then come up with something. And I’m much better at figuring out how to make an idea work, rather than actually coming up with the idea. Although I can do so if needed.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed on both counts.

      This is from a great New York Times article on how brainstorming isn’t very useful:

      But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

    2. Jamie*

      I agree – and add C. The fallacy that all ideas are good ideas.

      I’m not saying an idea must be perfect before being suggested, far from it, but some of the stuff I’ve heard tossed out in actual brainstorming sessions wasn’t worth the ink to write it on the dry erase board. Silly for the sake of it.

  11. Lanya*

    I think there are some people out there who genuinely cannot come up with original ideas, good or bad. They simply lack the ability to look at a situation objectively and brainstorm a solution.

    If that is the case here, I feel the OP’s frustration that he or she is coming up with all of the ideas him/herself. It’s a breeding ground for resentment over time.

    I hope the OP’s boss eventually intervenes, even if just to tell the new team member he expects her to contribute more.

  12. Not So NewReader*

    Why not make an attempt to address the statement “I don’t know.”?

    “Well, yeah, most of us feel that way. And it cannot be easier as a new person. So what is your best guess here?’


    “Okay, let’s look at this situation closer. We have choice A, choice B or choice C. Which one do you think is a good idea?”

    I am assuming private one-on-one conversations here.
    In short, don’t let her off the hook. It almost sounds like she thinks if she says “I don’t know” then she is off the hook. And that is not the idea here.

  13. Camellia*

    And sometimes I have a couple of great ideas and the other people say them before I do. Then I might just say, ‘I dunno’.

  14. AIT*

    I was in a similiar situation, and thought that a boss whom I really look up to handled it appropriately. She told everyone that we are to bring at least X number of ideas to the next meeting. It was required!

  15. EngineerGirl*

    There are a lot of possible reasons she’s like this.

    Maybe she doesn’t think well on her feet.
    Maybe she doesn’t feel deeply familiar with the subject matter, so can’t think of improvements without research first.
    Maybe your personality overwhelms hers so she shuts up – as in your immediate demands that the contribute actually cause her to go scatter brained.

    The solution to all of these is the same, and Allison already gave it: give her a day or two notice, and ask her to bring X ideas to the table.

    Some of us like to chew on things a while and absolutely HATE to give a half-baked answers.

  16. KarenT*

    I’m not clear on how new she is to your department, but consider giving her time to settle in. I worked in event planning for a while, and we were expected to throw out ideas in meetings. It’s a hard thing to do while you are figuring out your company. You don’t know what your boss expects, what your clients expect, what mistakes your department made in the past, what your competitors are doing, etc.

  17. Rocky Fjord*

    Some people are task oriented, some are people oriented. Some are
    outgoing, some are reserved. Some are direct, others are more careful
    and cautious. A person who is people oriented may be more an influencer or stabilizer, while a task oriented person may be more direct and decisive, a driver. So one would be well advised to know
    what type of person one’s colleague is, and then it may be easier to
    understand how they think and where they are coming from. For
    more, read ‘Everyone Can Win’ by Helena Cornelius, about conflict resolution and much more.

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