a coworker wants to push a bad idea at a meeting I lead

A reader writes:

I’m really stumped on what seems like a fairly typical leadership scenario, but for whatever reason I can’ think of the best course of action.

I lead a monthly meeting of about 30 of my peers where we discuss pain points about our role and develop solutions, among other things. I was recently approached by a newer member who asked if she could share a solution (or what she kept calling a “new process” to “roll out”) with the group. I asked to hear more, and I see real issues with it–it doesn’t seem like she checked with her peers to understand the viability of this idea in different areas. She’s only about 4 months into the role, and I think she’s been encouraged by her manager to speak up more in this venue for brownie points.

For some validation, I checked with my mentor, the former leader of the forum (now promoted), to see what she thought and she really surprised me–she thinks its a great idea and that leadership will love it. It totally blindsided me–I can’t understand how she could think this is a viable/sustainable solution!

In any case, this convinced me that I want to set her idea before the group. I think it should probably be brought to a fair vote, and I decidedly will move forward with it if there’s enough support behind it. How can I ask this person to share their idea in a fair and neutral way while ensuring that my (valid) concerns are heard?

I realize this could be tough without knowing the nature of the idea, but I spent a lot of time thinking though the ramifications of this proposal and I worry my peers (who never speak up much) wouldn’t give it enough thought! Is this just a case of what will be will be?

Let her share the idea and open it up to debate from the group.

The fact that your mentor thinks it’s a great idea is useful information — if nothing else, it tells you that reasonable, competent people could see this differently than you do. (Assuming that your mentor is reasonable and competent, of course.) Or, alternately, it says that you see a different piece of this than your mentor does, and that it could be valuable to share your perspective.

So let her share the idea, and encourage debate on it. Share your qualms, and see what others in the group say about them.

If you’re right to think it’s a terrible idea, then either others will agree (or come around once they hear your concerns) or you’re working with a group who you’re pretty unaligned with — which is also useful to know.

Either way, developing a culture of encouraging ideas but also subjecting them to rigorous examination and debate is a good thing.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. AJ-in-Memphis

    Exactly!

    The key to any discussion about a new project or plan is *honest* feedback from all the participants. I think if everyone (including the OP) is encouraged to be honest in an open-to-new-ideas setting, it would be beneficial to the whole group and make meetings more productive (IMO) as well as your job that much easier (ensuring bad ideas are voted down and not implemented).

    1. Rob Aught

      That’s what I think to.

      I’ve had my fair share of ideas I’ve had to push through that someone thought was terrible. A lot of times they worked out great.

      I’ve had others push ideas I was not onboard with, but after listening to the group I was willing to go along. As it turns out, not every idea I thought was terrible turned out the way I expected.

      I have also had some of my “brilliant” ideas shot down in group discussion. That additional perspective was crucial in bringing out details I wasn’t considering.

      In short, the best play here is to get additional feedback. Especially if you think the idea is terrible.

  2. Mike C.

    I don’t understand OP, if you think this is such a bad idea, then there must be some measurable metric by which this terribleness can be measured, correct? Assuming this idea makes it through after voicing your concerns, you treat it like a science experiment.

    You measure your control group, you measure your experimental group and either you were right, your coworker was right. What’s the big deal here?

    1. AJ-in-Memphis

      I laughed out when I “new process” to “roll out”… Jargon makes me want to jog out away…

      1. AJ-in-Memphis

        I laughed out when I saw “new process” to “roll out”… Jargon makes me want to jog away…

        1. Jessa

          I thought so too, I mean I got the definition by context, I’d actually never heard it used before that way.

  3. EnnVeeEl

    I’m glad that the OP is open to looking at this from different angles and got feedback from other people on the idea and how to handle it, instead of just shooting the woman down. That happens way too often in too many organizations.

  4. Employment lawyer

    To avoid blindsiding your co-worker (and to increase the benefits of discussion at the meeting) you might consider telling her about some of your opposition beforehand:

    “I’ll put it up at the meeting because you deserve to have that idea be presented. I don’t want to surprise you though–from the limited details I have heard to date, I don’t agree with the proposal.

    Early feedback is part of what we do here and I’d be happy to sit down for a few minutes and talk about this. An exchange of information may be valuable for us both, but if you’d prefer I can save that for the meeting. Let me know.”

    1. TheSnarkyB

      I agree with mentioning your reservations but I also think that OP should be careful about tone, considering that this is a coworker (even though coworker is new). Saying “part of what we do here”, especially if that’s more aspirational than true, could easily come off snotty.

    2. Anonicorn

      I was going to suggest this too.

      OP can say something like, “We have tried similar ideas in the past that did not work. Here are some specific reason why they were unsuccessful. Maybe you can be prepared to think through some of these pitfalls.”

    3. Nichole

      I agree with giving the employee a heads up. The first thing I imagined was OP telling Young Eager New Hire, “Sure! Go ahead and present it! Sounds great!” and then tearing her to shreds in front of everyone. I have been YENH myself. I know I would never have made the transition from “I need to find a way to stand out right now” to carefully feeling out the factors at play when forming a suggestion if I felt like my boss threw me under the bus the first time I had an idea. “Here are my concerns, here’s what I like…let’s see what everyone else thinks” is a good approach. I particularly like the second part of your script, it says “I value your ideas, and I’m willing to be a resource to you in presenting it in a form that is likely to work for us.” If it’s truly a bad idea, that will come out. YENH needs an ally, if not for the idea than for her personally.

  5. Another English Major

    “How can I ask this person to share their idea in a fair and neutral way while ensuring that my (valid) concerns are heard?”

    I don’t get why the idea needs to be shared in a fair and neutral way. Obviously this person thinks it’s a good solution and that will come through when she outlines why. The LW concerns wouldn’t be neutral either-she’d be advocating why it’s not a good idea.

    Either way Alison’s advice is excellent and if the LW follows it she should be fine and will get to hear a lot more perspectives on it. It kind of seems like she’s already made up her mind so the different viewpoints would be a good thing IMO

      1. Judy

        When I was reading it, I got the impression that the OP sees herself as the facilitator of the meeting, trying to remain neutral. But then she’s concerned that the other people in the meeting will not see the disadvantages, so what should she do?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Unless there’s some reason that the meeting requires that she remain neutral, I don’t think she needs to. She should express her concerns.

          1. Jamie

            This. Very few ideas are all good or all bad…having different points of view is really valuable.

          2. AnotherAlison

            Agreed.

            I also think that regardless of whether she loves or hates the idea personally, as facilitator, she should intentionally try to poke holes in the idea to make sure there are no fatal flaws the group is overlooking.

    1. TheSnarkyB

      It sounds like OP is concerned about whether the other people in the meeting will take a critical look at it, rather than just buying into a “this is gonna be great!” tone – hence the awesomeness of AAM’s mention of developing a culture of critical thought/critique.

  6. KarenT

    Can you try her idea as sort of a pilot? Before agreeing to it and going all in, you could try it with one or two projects and see the implications.

  7. Joey

    I couldn’t tell if you’ve done this, but if you want to be helpful you should give her a heads up about your concerns before the meeting. Then let her pitch the idea to the group however she wants- dont get hung up on fair/neutral. Let the group debate the pros /cons and try to beat up the idea.

    1. Wo Fat

      Pro and cons, exactly.
      OP, you could make a table with two columns, one side labeled “Pros” and the other side labeled “Cons”. Then have you, your associate who thought up the idea and every member of the team and all concerned including your boss spell out everything on either or both sides of the table. Say everything positive about it and all of the benefits on the pro side and everything negative about it including all of the costs on the con side.
      Weigh out the pros and cons and then someone (you?) has to make a decision about whether or not to go ahead with it.

  8. Chocolate Teapot

    Isn’t this question a companion piece to the question about an overenthusiastic new junior employee from a few months back?

    Either way, I think a discussion is in order. Perhaps, even if it appears to be a rotten idea to begin with, it may transpire that it could work.

  9. Ash

    A lot of people will not offer criticisms of others in an open forum, even if they are told that it’s fine, acceptable, are assured there won’t be retaliation, etc., because they fear it anyway, and/or don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings. I think that the OP may want to do one of two things: 1) Have the person type up a short presentation for the OP to present in a neutral way, and let the group discuss it without revealing who created the idea. This might make people more open to discussing the problems they have with it. 2) The OP could let the person present the idea at the very end of the forum, and then suggest that people think about it and let her know their criticisms/ideas/updates/etc. This would shield the co-worker from any negativity (in case they’re sensitive or anything), and would give the OP a lot of good points to offer in a possible private, follow-up meeting.

    1. former consultant

      This has been my experience, too, and it seems to get more pronounced the larger the group. The OP says the meetings consist of 30 people, which I think is too much for meaningful discussion. Perhaps the OP can change up some of these meetings and create smaller break-out groups to get better feedback.

  10. fposte

    OP, are your concerns things that could be overcome? You might be able to raise them as challenges instead of deal-breakers, and you certainly don’t have to be the person to solve them.

  11. Jesse

    OP, I work in libraries. Sometimes that means the newest and latest trend needed to happened yesterday. Sometimes it means that great ideas are not implemented to their best strengths.

    With the latter issue, I’ve learned that I really need to give it a solid try before I turn it down. I have also learned the statistics are my friend. When I have issues, if I can keep track of how often the problem occurs, and what time is necessary to fix, or solve situations that arise from the issue, my point is stronger. At times it has ended up that the new process had Y issue which took X minutes to solve, but overall time decreased with this new process has more than made up for X.

  12. AB

    Here’s what I find strange about this question: the OP said,

    “I lead a monthly meeting of about 30 of my peers where we discuss pain points about our role and develop solutions, among other things.”

    And then asks,

    “How can I ask this person to share their idea in a fair and neutral way while ensuring that my (valid) concerns are heard?”

    Isn’t this meeting precisely to share ideas and hear everybody’s concerns, so you can make an informed decision that takes various perspectives into consideration?

    “I worry my peers (who never speak up much) wouldn’t give it enough thought!”

    If the meeting participants “never speak up much”, you have a larger problem, as it seems the meeting is not serving its purpose.

    It looks like you are wearing two hats in these meetings: leader and facilitator. It’s part of your role as facilitator to encourage participation from all attendees, so if it’s not happening, you need to figure out what needs to change. It’s part of your role as leader to be a full participant in the discussions, so bringing up your concerns should be part of the meeting’s regular routine.

    The fact that even your mentor thought it was a great idea is a sign that it’s an idea worth being discussed. I think you should pay attention to the tone you use when you introduce the topic, because your comment “I think she’s been encouraged by her manager to speak up more in this venue for brownie points.” indicates that you already formed a negative opinion about the person (it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to interpret things this way, considering that even your mentor thinks it’s a great idea — her manager probably thought the same thing, and for that reason encouraged her to present it to the group).

  13. HowMightWe

    Thanks Everyone–I’m the OP.

    My question was a bit wordy so i wanted to clarify a few points:

    1. The dissenting opinions that exist have already convinced me that an open discussion needs to take place
    2. I agree that the new employee does not deserve to be thrown under the bus- hence my preoccupation with neutrality and/or fairness
    3. I’m a year out of college and had not actually realized that “pain point” was corporate jargon…(pain) point taken

    To simplify, at the crux of my concern is this balance that AP identified between facilitator and leader, and how it’s difficult to be both. I’d appreciate suggestions/examples of how this is done successfully!

    1. Joey

      Its actually not that difficult. There’s a few ways you can do it. Let her present, then talk about the goals of the feedback. Then go around the room and ask everyone to provide their feedback. Or you can also just ask for feedback from anyone, sort of free for all-ish and then look for people who aren’t contributing. You main goal is to try and bridge the gaps when the conversations or ideas get stuck. Do that either by seeking input or giving it yourself. You can keep a tally of the pros and cons until you work through all of the logistics of the idea.

    2. Kou

      I feel like you’re overthinking this a whole lot. Let her present the idea however she plans to present the idea. I don’t think you really need to *do* anything special. You don’t need your coworkers to see it the same way you do, nor should you be concerned that their differing viewpoints are somehow an obstacle to you. You don’t need to come up with a way to make them draw your conclusions without you actually voicing them.

      Tell her some of the issues you see but also why your mentor thought it was a good plan and see if there are ways to address the problems you foresee.

    3. AB

      OP, I understand your confusion regarding the balance between facilitator and leader. The facilitator is supposed to stay neutral on content and focus on managing the proceedings, while the meeting leader is pat of the discussion and should be offering his/her opinions with the intent of influencing the outcome of discussions, so ideally these roles are played by different people.

      The best approach would be to designate someone else who doesn’t need to be involved in the decisions as the facilitator, so you can focus on the leader role and what’s being decided.

      If you can’t do that, I’d recommend getting a good book on facilitation to learn how to encourage participation, manage resistance, and record all sides of the issue before you try for a decision.

      During the meeting, you can step out of the facilitator role to share your opinions, and again to take an active role when it’s time to decide.

    1. Editor

      I didn’t see anyone saying this had to be an HR question, but maybe I missed something. Did you mean to respond to a particular comment?

      1. Windchime

        I’ve noticed that sometimes people have the mistaken belief that you are an HR person and that you somehow represent the HR point of view. I’m not sure how that came about, but I’ve gotten that impression from several recent posts.

    2. Jessa

      Why does it have to be an HR question. This is Ask a Manager, not just ask HR questions?

  14. Dave

    I am disappointment someone that manages 30 or so people is struggling with this. An effective approach to addressing this is:

    1. Ask them what problem they are trying to address – It may be a solution to a problem you are unaware of.

    2. Set expectations by giving them a short list of high level concerns (which will need to be addressed) and point them to an SME they can talk to if they want to pursue it.

    3. Provide them a means to get it on the agenda AFTER they discuss the ideas with the SME.

    This way you get the opportunity to learn something valuable and the new hire gets an opportunity to discuss new ideas with a clear understanding of what is expected. Finally the most important thing is you give them a way to save face if after they discuss it with someone knowledgeable privately on the subject if they can’t meet those expectations.

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