my employee says he’s “already thought of” every suggestion I make

A reader writes:

I’ve got an odd situation happening with a male staff member on my team. I’m his boss and a woman. We are similar in age (I’m a couple of years older), and he has more experience in specific areas of his work than I do, and I have more expertise in other areas of his job description. When he brings ideas or suggestions to me about areas of our work where he is clearly more knowledgeable, I always respond with “great idea” or “I never would have thought of that — so glad to have your expertise in this area,” etc. However, when I make suggestions about ways he could expand or grow in the areas of his responsibilities where I have more expertise and knowledge, he will frequently respond with something akin to “I have already thought of doing that exact thing in that exact way and just didn’t tell you yet.”

He doesn’t respond this way 100% of the time. For example, if it’s an area we’re both a bit in the dark on and working to figure out something new, I don’t get the “you’re not telling me anything I hadn’t already thought of” response to suggestions. It happens mostly when I’m suggesting ways to take a project further or make it more impactful. But it’s happening often enough that I’m noticing the pattern and feeling annoyed by it.

When I get the “I already thought of that” response, I can’t help but think he’s lying. While he does have good ideas, I’ve had to have two conversations with him in the past about his productivity levels and my need for him to take complete ownership of projects (he’s in a director-level position). He tends to check boxes and just achieve the task while not, in my observation, fully engaging with his work.

When I think about why he’s responding this way to my suggestions, I imagine it’s one of two things: he’s feeling called out for not thinking through a project more fully before bringing an idea or a request to me or he’s devaluing my expertise and experience. He’s not rejecting what I’m suggesting, just making sure I know he had gotten there on his own. Maybe there’s something else going on?

I know the only way to know is to ask him, but I’m struggling with how to address it or if I even need to. Part of me thinks at least he’s taking my suggestions and implementing them. Who cares if he needs to tell me it was his idea, not mine? I’m secure in my position, have the complete trust of my boss (a man), and any undervaluing my employee may do is contained. If it’s an issue with my gender, I have other, more important things to deal with than enlightening him. But if I’m doing something to make him feel that he has to make it clear he’s on the same wavelength or there will be consequences, I’d like to stop doing that. That part of me doesn’t want to feel that I am stressing him out and causing this behavior as a coping mechanism or way he feels he needs to manage me.

If I do need to address it, how? I’ll never get him to admit he’s not thought of these things before me or at the same time (he 100% hasn’t), and I don’t even care. I just want him to feel okay with taking a suggestion and saying, “Sure, I’ll do that.”

Oh, I worked with this guy! And yes, it’s really annoying.

After all, it doesn’t really matter if he’s thought of every suggestion you make if he hasn’t acted on it or raised it himself (or isn’t ready to explain why he decided not to). And yeah, you can usually tell when someone is just saying it to prop themselves up (although ironically, it has the opposite effect of what they intend and makes them look less capable than if they hadn’t tried to claim they already had the ideas).

I do think you’re right to grapple with whether it’s something you really need to address or not. I lean toward thinking you should, because (a) if he is reacting to something about the way you’re managing him, it’s worth knowing that (unless it’s just that you’re, you know, managing him while being a woman) and (b) if you’re right that he’s BS’ing you, it ties into the larger concerns you have about his work — that he’s not approaching a director-level job with enough rigor and engagement.

So one option is to just say directly the next time he does it: “I’ve noticed when I suggest ways to take a project further or increase its impact, you tell me you’ve already thought of those ideas. I don’t care much whose idea is whose or who thought it up first, but I want to make sure I’m not doing something that makes you feel pressured to assure me you’re already there?”

Alternately: “I’ve noticed when I suggest ways to take a project further or increase its impact, you tell me you’ve already thought of those ideas. If that’s the case, great — but I’d love to see you running with those ideas on your own then before I suggest them. What do we need in place to make that happen?”

Related to that, it might be interesting to say one of the next times it happens, “Oh, great! Was there a reason you hadn’t tried it — do you have concerns about doing it that way?” It’s a bit of a trap for him because, assuming he hadn’t really thought it through before this moment, he’s not likely to have a great answer. The point isn’t to trap him, though; it’s to help him realize that claiming he had your idea first isn’t a “freebie” since you’re going to then ask a probing follow-up about it, and so there’s a downside to that response that he might not have considered.

You also might try asking for his ideas first before you offer your own … which presumably will make it harder for him to then respond with “already thought of it” once you do offer yours.

But I think you’re right to be annoyed, and also that your level annoyance is calibrated correctly — it’s not the biggest deal in the world but it’s odd, and it’s probably a mark of Something Bigger.

{ 175 comments… read them below }

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    If you have any documentation systems, like a project planning tool or a wiki, this is also OP’s opportunity to tell her report to write those things there. “I already thought of that” is probably just “I thought of that for 10 seconds but didn’t consider any of the ramifications, risks, level of effort, etc.” Some analysis with an actual plan is a lot different from a random thought.

    1. OP*

      Thank you – we do have a collaboration software, which he doesn’t like to use. It’s always, “I’ll add those items there next week.” I’m addressing that, as well, but this is great advice.

      1. EngineeringFun*

        Ooooh! Yes! I have a coworker like this and it’s very helpful to have them document BEFORE meeting with me!

      2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

        Ooooh – yeah I’m betting that he doesn’t like to use it because he’s all flash and no substance.

  2. LoV...*

    I really like this option because if he thought of it, what’s stopping him from doing it? I think that would cut down on false claims and if he truly did think of it before, he should have something to say here.

    “Oh, great! Was there a reason you hadn’t tried it — do you have concerns about doing it that way?”

    1. Rose*

      My fear would be hell then start trying to think of reasons all of her ideas are “bad.” But honestly I guess why not figure out now if he’s going to double down on this nonsense.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Ah, but they aren’t her ideas anymore; he thought of them first! And then… did nothing with them.

        Personally, I don’t see any reason to say “I thought of that” that doesn’t continue with “…and here are my concerns with doing things that way.”

        1. Quinalla*

          Yes, it makes it even more obvious that he HASN’T thought of it yet because yes the obvious next thing would be to follow up with “I haven’t implemented it yet cause X” or “I thought of that, but I think Y is better because of Z” etc.

          I do think I would probably want to address it up front with him, but maybe start with this first and see what happens. I think it is a good way to get him thinking more director level anyway, maybe even say that.

        2. Brain the Brian*

          Counterpoint: once a manager suggests something, it becomes much harder to give reasons why you think it won’t work — even if you have considered them — without looking deliberately insubordinate. I’m not necessarily saying that’s always what’s happening here, but it might be part of it some of the time.

          1. fantomina*

            I don’t think that’s necessarily true– it’s not insubordination to raise concerns, particularly with something still in the idea stage. It’s insubordination to ignore a point blank order or to, say, insult your boss’s idea, but I think a healthy workplace welcomes a certain amount of dialogue.

          2. Hannah Lee*

            Especially when LW is specifically asking what his take on it was, why he didn’t pursue it. She’s not looking for him to naysay or blindly agree with her, she’s asking for his perspective and insight, since he’s the one in theory closest to the situation, considering options, weighing strengths, weaknesses, priorities of various things.

            The only ‘gotcha’ there is the one Alison pointed out, it would make clear if he didn’t really consider it first or actually think of any of that, which would entirely be a problem of his own making because he’s the one who mentioned he’d already thought of it.

            And it would provide more tangible insight into LW’s sense that he’s not fully owning or engaging with the things he’s being paid to take the lead on.

          3. fhqwhgads*

            If someone really thought of it they wouldn’t say “I thought of that already but didn’t tell you yet” in a cutting-off kind of way like it sounds like the employee in the letter is doing. They’d say something more like “I thought of that (the other day, yesterday, this morning) and wanted to talk to you about it because Reason A seems good but then Reason B gave me pause.” Or even if there is no “but” a person who really thought of it before would be glad to hear it brought up since it reinforces their idea is good. This employee sounds like they’re just pissing out territory rather than actually planning anything, which is what makes it sound like they didn’t actually think of it.

            1. OP*

              I’m the OP, and the I agree with this. When I get the response from this employee, there’s nothing added in addition, just the statement that it’s already been thought of and just not communicated.

              1. Clorinda*

                There’s always the simple response, “That’s interesting, Chadley,” and then continue with what you were going to say anyway.

              2. Also-ADHD*

                Can I ask—do you usually ask his ideas first? I often have thought of stuff my boss suggests even if I don’t say so, frankly, but just want to sound board and see if I’m in the same page sometimes or not drown out other ideas. With the other issues, I’m going to guess that’s not what this guy is trying, but I do like the suggestion not only of asking probing questions but also simply getting him to share his ideas first if that might help, especially if when you brainstorm together he’s cooperative and not doing this.

              3. Victoria*

                Another simple response would be “And?” Let that hang in the air for a few seconds. He shouldn’t even be saying he thought of it already unless he follows up with something useful.

                1. 8foot7*

                  This is antagonistic and unlikely to really accomplish anything productive in the long term. AAM had much better ideas.

          4. Brain the Brian*

            I mean, I am generally terrified of my manager, so I wouldn’t want to sound like an idiot who hadn’t thought of her (usually obvious in hindsight) solution, but I also wouldn’t want to contradict her suggestion by immediately listing a bunch of reasons why it wouldn’t work. I would just advise OP to approach a conversation with her employee about this with an open mind about what might be causing this (admittedly) odd response.

    2. ferrina*

      My approach is similar:
      “Oh? Why didn’t you say anything?”

      Usually there’s some dithering. If they seem to get that they were being a glassbowl, I move the conversation along. If they don’t, I’ll say “part of your job is being able to see opportunities and advocate for them. I’m not psychic- if you aren’t’ saying something then I can’t hear it.”

      1. SharkTentacles*

        Really, you say “I’m not psychic” to your employees? And think of them as “glassbowls?” This is not a very skilled way of communicating with your reports.

        Sarcasm and name-calling are out of place at work, all the more so from a manager to their employee.

      2. 8foot7*

        I had to look up what “glass bowl” meant. This is a really poor way to lead people and there are far better ways to get results from your reports than to be unnecessarily aggressive.

  3. S*

    I definitely started using the method where I ask about their ideas and what they have already tried to address an issue first. It was a game changer.

    It is a waste of your time and energy to think of things he has “already thought of” by getting his thoughts first you save yourself the energy and the annoyance.

    1. Heart&Vine*

      That’s a great idea! Gauge what he thinks should be done and then, if your idea isn’t mentioned, bring it up! And if he says, “Oh! I had thought of that too!”, then say, “Hmm, I just asked you about your ideas and you didn’t bring it up. Was there something making you hesitate mentioning it?”.

    2. another Hero*

      I’m not sure I would have an easy time raising ideas I’d tossed out, whether because I wouldn’t remember them all or because I might have a hard time gauging which were relevant – but on the other hand, if I were in this guy’s position, I would say (I have said) things like “I did think about that, but I had concerns x and y, so I didn’t go that way.” The fact that he hasn’t either tried them or offering a reason for ruling them out says to me that if he’s not lying (odds are he’s lying), he’s not engaging in the way the LW seems to want him to. Neither is ideal; the lying is weirder. I doubt the LW is doing something to make him feel like he has to say this, but it’s conscientious to want to make sure. I’d wait until he does it again and ask why he hasn’t gone that way, but I don’t think any of Alison’s approaches are wrong.

  4. Margaret Cavendish*

    I’d skip the first two, and go straight to “Great, tell me more!” More details about what he’s thinking, has he tried it yet, if yes how did it go, if no why not, and so on. Treat him like the adult he is, and the professional you expect him to be, and take him seriously when he says this kind of thing.

    If it’s true that he has already thought of these things, then there’s no need for coaching – you can go straight to the next steps. But if he’s full of shit (which I *strongly* suspect he is!), that will come out in this conversation. Then at that point you can try “what do we need to make this happen?” and “I expect you to run with these things yourself instead of waiting for me to ask.” Good luck!

    1. Antilles*

      Yeah, that was my thought too. The instant he says he’s already thought of the idea, you jump on that and ask for details of how he plans to implement the idea.

    2. Cobol*

      Potentially tough he thought of it, but decided it wasn’t the right approach. I think Alison’s answer is spot on, because it removes the question of whether he did or didn’t think of it, and just addresses correcting his response.

      1. zuzu*

        If he thought it wasn’t the right approach, he should be able to explain why not. In detail.

        I’m having something of an issue with someone I serve on a committee with who shoots down suggestions to cancel our library’s print subscriptions with nothing more than “I’m uncomfortable with it” or “We can’t” or “What if the power goes out?” That’s been an acceptable answer to the rest of the group, but since I’ve joined, I’ve really started pushing her to explain herself/provide data. Which is making everyone else uncomfortable, but if she wants me to continue to invest money we don’t really have in something in my area of expertise that I think should go and she can’t give me an answer that is more specific than “It makes me uncomfortable to change the way we do things,” then I’m going to make everyone live with the discomfort until I get an answer.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          “What if the power goes out” is my absolute favourite, because it makes no sense. If that happens, nobody is borrowing any print subscriptions anyway, and they can’t read them at the library if there’s no lights on. But they may still be able to access things remotely, depending on the set-up of the system.

          1. Antilles*

            It’s also funny because even if the power does go off, does she really think people are going to keep sitting there in the darkened library, just casually reading the latest issue of GQ or USA Today?

            1. Risky Biscuits*

              In the academic library I worked in, people would do just that, including the community (non-student) patrons who would come in and read our newspapers/magazines. (There was a string of a few weeks when the power kept going out to due to bad weather. Maybe people just got desensitized to it.)

  5. Yeah...*

    I have a friend who does this. We are the same gender.

    I snapped once and told them “If you knew why didn’t say something before?” The tone was light. I realized this may not work exactly in the work context. More tellingly, they didn’t answer. The pause lasted like 5 VERY LONG seconds. At which point, I continued the conversation.

    That being said, this happens repeatedly. We address this behavior in one subject. When another subject comes up, this exact behaviour happens again.

    I haven’t decided it if this a personal matter, or just how my friend communicates. I do which they would knock it off.

    1. Myrin*

      I had an acquaintance like that, too, and with her, I honestly suspect that it was more of a verbal tic than anything. She reacted to the most not-in-her-wheelhouse-in-any-way things like that and I always felt like she just hadn’t ever thought of an alternative immediate answer (or the fact that she could, like, take her time with responding and didn’t need to fire a fully-formed sentence at me as soon as I paused).

      1. Sloanicota*

        Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is just the employee’s panicked response in the moment to feeling caught flat-footed. I myself have blurted some dumb stuff and then it gets embedded. It’s annoying to everyone.

      2. Sciencer*

        That was my thought for the guy in this letter – that maybe he needs to practice pausing before speaking so that he says what he really means. “I’ve already thought of that” might actually mean “I immediately have a negative reaction to that.” If so, it would be (1) more valuable for him to share the specific concern/negative reaction so he and OP could talk it through and (2) more productive for him to learn to pause and consider broader contexts, including any positive outcomes, if his knee-jerk reaction to external ideas is to focus on the flaws.

        1. OP*

          I’m the LW, and your response gave me something else to think about. I do know this person tends to focus on the flaws in ideas first, but I do, too. Not to squash ideas but because it’s my job to make sure we’re not wasting resources or making public mistakes (we work in PR/Communications). I usually preface my “squashing,” with “hold on a second and let me think through any ways this could blow back on us, be perceived negatively, etc., etc.” to make sure my team knows I’m not just picking things apart. I’ll keep considering that possibility.

    2. Lorax*

      So, I feel like I *am* this employee in a lot of cases (and I’m a woman, so I wouldn’t necessarily assume it has to do with gender). For me, my biggest pet peeve in the world is being told something I already know or being told to do something I’ve already thought of — it often feels paternalistic and condescending: like, why would you assume I haven’t thought of that and/or aren’t already planning to do this thing that feels so basic that I didn’t think was worth mentioning? Do you think I’m incompetent? I just knee-jerk bristle, and it gets my hackles up. Plus, given how busy and stressed we all are in my line of work, it also feels like a waste of time to hash/rehash something I assumed we both already thought and didn’t need expressing, so on top of feeling condescended to, I also feel frustrated and trapped and panicked and like my time is being wasted.

      Now, I know this is an issue, so it’s something I’ve worked on over the years (I’ve been in therapy and have have some great breathing exercises!), but I definitely understand the defensive/reactive state of mind this kind of thing can trigger for people. For me, it helps if my manager phrases suggestions like questions, coming from a place of curiosity, rather than making assumptions about what I’ve considered or not. This might be giving your employee too much credit, but if he’s anything like me, it might help to just ask, “Looks like X is a problem. Have you thought of doing Y?”

      That might not be the case here, especially if there are other performance issues, and you’re not seeing evidence that he’d implement your suggestions on his own if left to his own devices. So I’m not necessarily trying to defend him, just give some additional context about why you might be seeing this kind of response. Regardless, Allison’s scripts should be a wake up call to him that his responses aren’t appropriate. (For me, I realized my responses were an issue when my manager just stared at me after one of my “yeah, already thought of that” replies. A good, nonplussed stare can go a long ways too…)

      1. zuzu*

        For me, my biggest pet peeve in the world is being told something I already know or being told to do something I’ve already thought of — it often feels paternalistic and condescending: like, why would you assume I haven’t thought of that and/or aren’t already planning to do this thing that feels so basic that I didn’t think was worth mentioning? Do you think I’m incompetent?

        This is why, when I’m dealing with students or reference interviews, I first ask where they’ve looked and what steps they’ve taken before I start making suggestions. I don’t want to assume they have done zero, and of course with students, you want to assess how well they’ve done and where the holes are in their knowledge so you can guide them to the answer rather than just provide it. I also don’t want to waste anyone’s time suggesting what they’ve already done.

        It always makes me so proud when they’re so well trained that they start an interaction with “I need help and I’ve looked [here] and [here] and [here] and [this] was my search string. Can you help me?” These are the ones who say nice things about the library in the alumni surveys.

        1. Ally McBeal*

          I’ve recently seen headlines along the lines of “Here’s the reason why millennial employees are so hard to manage” and the gist of the story is that we usually bring problems to our managers after we’ve tried everything we can think of, and we proactively explain our thought process/what we’ve already tried. So it’s “hard” to manage us because we’ve already thought of the easy answers and only bring the truly difficult problems to our managers (which to me seems like a good thing, but as a millennial I’m used to being sh*t on by older age groups, so, whatever).

          On the flip side, I love coaching Gen Z employees to do that same level of investigating because I’ve seen that they grew up with the world truly at their fingertips and didn’t have to make an effort, scrounging around encyclopedias and early versions of the internet for information, like 80s babies did.

          1. fantomina*

            The flip side of that for me is frustration with Gen Z students/employees who routinely ask questions that are easily answered by a quick google. Actually, it frustrates me regardless of generation, but particularly for people who have grown up with google at their fingertips. And I’ve seen a big increase in this type of question over the last few years.

            1. Ally McBeal*

              Oh 100%, that’s USUALLY my experience – I used to work at a college and saw all manner of ridiculous things, like Facebook-crowdsourcing an answer to the question “is the mailroom open today?” when the mailroom schedule is posted on the college’s website. It’s my biggest pet peeve, which is why the #1 trait I look for in new hires (particularly students or very-early-career folks) is “they ask good questions.”

              1. Quill*

                I almost understand the mailroom questoin – not going to facebook for it, but the assumption that the school’s website would not necessarily contain current information, or be searchable (Or be readable on mobile, etc…) Business and school websites are often where information goes to die, whether due to not updating or not being easily searchable.

                It’s the facebook thing that boggles me. Since when is facebook highly current and going to give you correct answers?

      2. MassMatt*

        Your experience seems very different, though , in that you evidently HAVE thought of these things and are either already doing them or have considered them and thought of reasons why they would not work. The LW’s report is not giving any indication of all that.

        It doesn’t seem reasonable for a boss to assume that their reports have already thought of, considered, and rejected any and all ideas to improve procedures.

        1. OP*

          I’m the LW (sorry, I know I keep writing that, but I’m not sure how/when folks will see this). All of these comments have been incredibly helpful in a) validating my annoyance and b) giving me food for thought and c) giving me actionable advice from Allison and others.

          Regarding the above exchange, I have to say that my experience is that, yes, my employee isn’t thinking of things, but I also do think I am probably not asking questions about his plans and am instead just telling him what to do. Lots of great advice here about how to ask him his plan rather than give it to him.

  6. Exme*

    I agree with the advice to engage him on the topic further, as if he is indicating he’s thought about the idea already then you can have a more detailed discussion of the pros and cons and implementation details from his perspective than you would otherwise. You should ask questions and he should talk. You should be able to tell from more discussion whether he’s actually given the idea some thought before. Maybe you’ll find he has had the idea cross his mind but he did not consider it thoroughly enough. Maybe he has considered it but is not implementing his own ideas unless prompted. Either of those would require a different coaching/managing approach than him saying he’s thought of something but really hadn’t.

  7. teapot analytics*

    I would never soften the message so much as this one: “I’ve noticed when I suggest ways to take a project further or increase its impact, you tell me you’ve already thought of those ideas. I don’t care much whose idea is whose or who thought it up first, but I want to make sure I’m not doing something that makes you feel pressured to assure me you’re already there?”

    That phrasing makes it the boss’ problem that he’s blurting out an attempt to shut down feedback on his work. He needs to take accountability either for not considering ways to increase the impact of his work (particularly as a director!) or considering ways he could do that and then just not doing it.

    1. Glomarization, Esq.*

      Agreed. If a colleague says to me that they’ve already thought of something, then I’ll answer, “All right, what’s your analysis, then?” There’s no need for me to try to feel out whether I’ve hurt his feelings (!) by putting pressure on him.

    2. Sloanicota*

      I see this as trying to help him identify the pattern leading up to him saying this, in the hopes of stopping it. If that’s the tack OP wants to take (I agree it’s also reasonable to just tell him to cut it out) I suspect it will take more than a couple tries from a couple angles. In addition to the script, maybe: He says “I already thought of this.” Me: “Can I ask why you didn’t get started then, if you already thought of it? Or why you didn’t suggest it when we were discussing X?” If he stutters: “I noticed you often respond by saying you already thought of it. Do you ever wonder why that’s your first instinct?” (or “why do you think that is”?). Are you worried I’ll think less of your management if there’s angles you haven’t considered? Do you think it looks better to say that, versus something like “that’s a good suggestion?”

      1. somehow*

        This. It should an exploratory discussion about what looks to be a knee-jerk reaction. I’m a bit surprised at some of the tones here, frankly. Just shutting it down isn’t useful at all, and is an unkind first step to finding out what’s driving his reaction.

      2. OP*

        I’m the LW, and yes, I think this approach makes sense. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from just shutting it down (but oh, how satisfying it would feel). I also think the employee knows that I’m losing some trust in him due to our conversations about productivity and, if I’m honest, I’m probably not doing as good a job as I think of with hiding my annoyance. Those things combined could be causing him to feel like he’s got to prove to me he got there before me, so it’s worth a discussion. And now I have lots of great advice on how to open that discussion.

    3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      As a manager, it is my responsibility to manage the people I have. So, within reason, I do want to know if I can do things differently to make my group more comfortable. E.g., if she’s telling him to have ownership of his projects but then is swinging into his office with a bunch of ideas, she’s giving a mixed message (not saying she’s doing this, but it’s possible). Psychological safety is important.

      1. 8foot7*

        I suspect this is really what’s happening. She’s given him feedback before that she wants him to take ownership of projects, which sets him up to feel as if he has to project that he has considered all angles all of the time of everything. It’s likely a defense mechanism.

    4. Michelle Smith*

      It very well could be a problem that the boss helped create or contribute to though. Acknowledging that could go a long way towards solving it.

      1. Margaret Cavendish*

        It definitely could be, but I wouldn’t lead with that – it just sets up a situation where the employee makes it entirely the boss’ problem, without taking any ownership himself. Especially since that’s something OP is already worried about:

        While he does have good ideas, I’ve had to have two conversations with him in the past about his productivity levels and my need for him to take complete ownership of projects… He tends to check boxes and just achieve the task while not…fully engaging with his work.

        I would start by examining the ideas themselves – ask for more details, what has he already tried, etc. If it turns out he actually does have good ideas but has a hard time implementing them, OP can have the “what can I do to help” conversation at that point. But if it turns out he’s just stalling, or downplaying OP’s experience, or whatever else – no need to start off by giving him another excuse.

    5. e271828*

      Yes, I don’t think the boss should be coddling the employee’s feelings if the employee is this lofty about dismissing the boss’s ideas. Employee needs to show their work.

  8. CatLady*

    When I have a peer do this I’ll say something along the lines of: Wonderful, that will make getting started on this so much easier. Great minds think alike!

  9. bamcheeks*

    LW, how quickly do you suggest things? I am wondering whether you can use some coaching techniques to make him work a bit harder (and this might also address some of the “engagement” issues you mention, which sound to me like the bigger and more intractable issue.)

    “What can I help with?”
    “What have you tried so far?”
    “What options are you considering?”
    “What are the pros and cons from your point of view?”
    “What do you need to put that into action?”
    “That all sounds fantastic in terms of the llama choreography, can’t wait to see it. What are you thinking in terms of the costumes?”
    “So it sounds like you’ve got a few ideas for the llama costumes to follow up over the next couple of weeks, great. Let’s come back to that at the end of October and see where we are. The other thing I wanted to check is the engagement on the Llamagram account. What’s happening there and what are your plans?”

    If he’s already thought of these things, make him tell you first, and if he’s run out of ideas and needs you to suggest some next steps, make him tell you that too!

    1. Robert in SF*

      Insert [I like that – I’m gonna steal it – It’s mine now.gif]

      These are a great set of prompts for coaching others as well, to help me not solve problems for others when they come for advice/help, and assist them to solve it themselves, or work through the issue with me as a contributor or sounding board instead!

      Thanks for this!

    2. Coco*

      Yes! I now document all my next steps and ideas in a slide or an agenda when providing updates because my manager jumps in before I have a chance.

    3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      This is a great question at the top, bamcheeks. I think his comments are more likely to come up in situations the LW is treating like collaborations between equals than in situations where someone is giving an update to the boss and seeking direction / approvals. So if the meetings have a lot of the flavour of the former situation, it may be helpful to shift to the latter to some extent. Get him to provide updates and analysis, and to ask questions about things he’s unsure about. When he asks those questions, continue to be nice, which will hopefully mitigate any risk that he’s afraid to ask you questions for some reason.

    4. tissues & issues*

      I’m glad to see some coaching recommendations here! While this guy is being obnoxious, I don’t think the onus is entirely on him. The line that“he’s not entirely engaging with his work” rubbed me the wrong way as it’s so vague and offers no real feedback. What does engagement mean to OP? Is she expecting him to accept each new task with enthusiasm and gratitude? If so, has she shared this expectation with him? If he’s checking boxes and getting his tasks done, he’s doing his job and he probably thinks he’s doing what’s required, right? OP might be a believer in going above and beyond, but maybe this guy has boundaries and only does what’s detailed in his job description.

      I think OP needs to address the “I already thought of that!” in the moment with one of the many great lines already offered (“great! Tell me more!”) and then address expectations, performance issues, etc. during their regular 1:1s

    5. OP*

      LW here – and yes, 100% to all of your suggestions. We have a project management/collaboration software and another reader suggested asking the employee to put everything there – another struggle. I’ve started asking for work to be done by X date, but I’m going to double-down on asking to put all the steps into the PM tool for me to review and then I could ask questions based on what I see. Doing that will also stop the “I already thought of that” responses, since it’s not in the steps. Thanks!

  10. ENFP in Texas*

    “Oh, great! Was there a reason you hadn’t tried it — do you have concerns about doing it that way?”

    I love this approach. If he has actually thought about it, the OP might get some insight that they hadn’t considered before. If he is just claiming to have thought of it, it becomes a “put up or shut up” moment, which is what is needed to shut this behavior down.

  11. Sloanicota*

    Well, at least you know why you’re this guy’s boss and why you deserve to stay there. When he says, “I already thought of that,” I’d immediately say, “Great! Please tell me how you plan to tackle X and Y. Could you write out all the associated steps and deadlines, and share those with me by COB?” I’m not going to call him out on the fib, but he’s going to have to do the work of buying into the idea since it was his and all.

  12. learnedthehardway*

    That sounds pretty annoying. Personally, if I were his manager, I would want to know why he didn’t bring up these ideas, if he had thought about them. It’s his JOB to think about these ideas.

    Now, perhaps he has thought of these ideas and has ruled them out for whatever reason. More likely, as you suspect, he HASN’T thought of them and is claiming he has, just to look better to you.

    For big projects, I would ask him to prepare for meetings by documenting his ideas and his rejected ideas so that you can review them together. Just tell him that you’ve noticed that in project / update meetings, you’re bringing up ideas that he says he has already considered, and this is not an efficient use of either of your time. Tell him to provide a list of what his plans are, and what ideas he has rejected (with reasons), to make the meeting more effective and productive.

    Not that the plan is to simply show him up or call him on whose idea is whose, but rather that IF he is actually thinking up these ideas, then he should mention them so you don’t have to go through the process of reduplicating the idea generation. Also, he should be able to show that he has considered and rejected the ideas for good reasons, so you don’t have to have that conversation all over again.

    This would be more efficient for you, IF he is thinking up the ideas. And it would put him on notice that he needs to put more thought into his projects/assignments, if (as you suspect) he is claiming he’d thought of the ideas, when he really hasn’t. And you’ll have dealt with the original issue, which is that he’s claiming to have done things that he probably hasn’t.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      ETA – this will also actually improve the productivity of your meetings, because you’ll be able to go beyond the ideas that come immediately to mind for you (and that may or may not have been coming to mind for him), and will allow you to instead focus on how to either get the ideas implemented (you’ll also be able to ask where he is at with getting the ideas implemented, if he is documenting them), and to look at ways to refine / improve the ideas.

  13. Happily Retired*

    I guess I’m just old and snarky, but when he said that he’d already thought of *idea*, I would have replied, “Then why haven’t you tried it/ used it?” I suppose that if I were trying to behave myself, I would have replied, “What exactly happened when you tried it/ used it?”

    (see my username!)

  14. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    I am occasionally guilty of this and am learning it’s related to ADHD. I am NOT saying that’s what’s happening with this director or that it makes it okay. I am only offering this perspective because LW & Alison speculated about the sources of the director’s behavior.

    For me, I have 8 billion ideas and thoughts and per minute and the chances are very good your idea has occurred to me at least once. People tell me ideas I’ve already had all the time and I’ve either forgotten it immediately, or ruled it not worth sharing because I saw X, Y, and Z problems with it, or I had already shared 20 other ideas and didn’t want to be annoying. I also have a dysfunction that triggers an irrational anger and resistance to doing things I was already planning to do if someone else tells me to do them.

    These are all things I am working on with my medical providers and it’s not okay to make these other people’s problems, but people in my life generally appreciate knowing that when I’m not able to manage these reactions and they do spill over, it’s about me and not them.

    1. lunchtime caller*

      “I also have a dysfunction that triggers an irrational anger and resistance to doing things I was already planning to do if someone else tells me to do them.”

      oh my lord this is so my partner and boy was it one of their most annoying qualities until we worked on it together. Now they basically get a three strike system for a task and if I say “yeah? well you were planning on doing it three days in a row and it didn’t happen” they take it with grace and do the thing then without being grumpy about it. If something needs to happen on a tighter timeline I communicate that, and they take extra efforts to keep themselves on task so we can avoid the whole reminder business.

      1. Clare*

        My very close friend is just like that because he has the pathological demand avoidance subtype of autism, and *my goodness gracious* is it annoying. I love the person but I do not love the behaviour.

      2. Higher Ed Cube Farmer*

        lunchtime caller
        and anybody else for whom the description “dysfunction that triggers an irrational anger and resistance to doing things I was already planning to do if someone else tells me to do them,” rings a bell, if you want to learn more about this Known Bug in many divergent and some otherwise-typical brains, you may find it helpful to search on keywords “Pervasive/Persistent Drive for Autonomy” “or “Pathological Demand Avoidance.” Anecdotally seems to co-occur with Rejection sensitive Dysphoria and may be related.

        These are not established psych/medical diagnoses (not something you can get ADA accommodation for), they’re just descriptive shorthands. But they are known things, and there’s coping strategies and workarounds to reduce their impact.

        1. MassMatt*

          When I was a teen a friend of mine weaponized this to be bratty to his sister. If she had a chore to do, such as setting the table, he would order her around about it. She would of course bristle and often abandon the task in defiance. Then the parents would get pissed at her for not doing what they asked her to. It was really epic level brattiness.

        2. Susan-shaped beehive*

          Ooh, thank you for the search terms! One of these describes me, the other describes my kid, and we both have raging ADHD.

    2. PABJ*

      It’s different if you say you’ve had an idea and then rejected it because of flaws/downsides you noticed. Not good when you just say “I thought of that” and then don’t follow up with any additional information

    3. Mialana*

      Yes , I thought too that it could maybe be related to executive disfunction of some kind. I have so many ideas and sometimes it’s just incredibly hard to do anything about the idea. However, if that’s the case asking why he didn’t follow through is still good advice!

      1. properlike*

        Right? I recently heard about this quirk in another forum and I’m like, “But I’m not on the autism spectrum, so that can’t be what I’m doing. But that’s exactly what I’m doing!”

        Look — I already thought of that and dismissed it! LOL

      2. I Have RBF*

        ADHD has the weirdest executive dysfunctions! Like… Planning on doing a basic thing at a certain time, then when the time rolls around, being unable to do the thing! List of things to do, then not being able to start at the top and work down, because brain weasels. Not remembering where something is, because you put it “away” in a supposedly obvious location, but you can’t remember what that obvious location was. Playing a game on your phone before bed, then looking up and it’s two hours later. (Timebinding? What’s that?)

        I have cell phone alarms, lists, translucent storage containers, labels, appointment reminders, etc, just to keep semi organized. I’m 62, and have some of the same executive dysfunction I had in grade school. I think I’ve found a work-around, then that work-around stops working, and I end up beating myself up for not doing a thing I’ve been able to do before.


  15. Mary*

    I like the fact when discussing projects with my team that it helps me come up with ideas etc, half of which I discard as I am talking them through but it does push my buttons when someone says. Oh we thought of that solution, here is the data, it didn’t work. I usually reply that I was making a great mental effort to brainstorm here and it would be so helpful to have the dross ideas removed early on.

    So you need sharing of ideas, there is not much use thinking of one without some communication and teasing out the issues/nuances. You’re trying to brainstorm, not come up with all the answers yourself. So I would get the OP to lay out all of his ideas for the next time. Maybe he can share before you meet, with the pros and cons of all ready.

  16. kiki*

    While he does have good ideas, I’ve had to have two conversations with him in the past about his productivity levels and my need for him to take complete ownership of projects (he’s in a director-level position). He tends to check boxes and just achieve the task while not, in my observation, fully engaging with his work.

    I’m wondering if he’s reacting this way because he feels like by needing any input/ideas from you, it risks you seeing him as not taking complete ownership of projects? I like Alison’s phrasing: “I want to make sure I’m not doing something that makes you feel pressured to assure me you’re already there?”

    I’ve definitely struggled with something similar– I was really worried about being seen as incompetent if my planning wasn’t absolutely perfect, so would way over-explain why I picked the option I did or feel really compelled to let folks know I already thought of something but eliminated it. A manager picked up on that and said, ” I trust you, you’re good at your job. When I’m asking questions or making suggestions, I am not doubting you or holding it against you for not having thought of something. They are genuinely just questions and suggestions.” That may not be possible here, though, if this guy isn’t really trustworth in this role.

    1. Robert in SF*

      Thanks for saying this…It’s been my experience as well. Perhaps over compensation or defensiveness, based on his internal narrative. Self-inflicted, but still in his head affecting his behavior and impressions on others he may not be aware of.

    2. Intern feeling Incompetent*

      I have had a similar experience as an intern. I had a conversation with a supervisor about how I seemed to be trying to show that I knew more than I did. I realized it was because a past supervisor made me feel incompetent and I was worried this new supervisor would be the same. They were very understanding!
      It seems like the LW’s situation is somewhat different, but I think it is important to consider the the potential of a past negative experience in similar situations. I like the idea of asking “Oh, great! Was there a reason you hadn’t tried it — do you have concerns about doing it that way?” in a kind, but straightforward way can either trap the person if they are lying but open a door for conversation if they are just trying to anxiously show competence.

  17. The Wizard Rincewind*

    I think it’s also worth considering that while a gender-based dismissal may not impact YOU directly, for the reasons you mentioned, this attitude, if unchecked, could cause a lot of problems for other women down the line, particularly those he may manage. I think that it’s worth probing into for that, as well.

    1. MassMatt*

      Great point. This guy is a director; LW seems very secure (though understandably annoyed) around this but it’s likely much worse if he does this to those reporting to him.

      And there’s much to think about in Alison’s last paragraph, where she notes the LW is “calibrating her level of annoyance” correctly. This is the kind of extra (unpaid!) work women and minorities have to do all the time which remains largely invisible, and the majority generally never has to consider.

      1. House On The Rock*

        I was just having a conversation with one of my staff about the ways in which we, as women, overthink and over analyze so many work interactions in ways that those who benefit from our overthinking do not.
        She was stuck on how she should be “assuming best intentions” with a potentially difficult client and my take was that’s all well and good the first time or two, but unless he’s also assuming she has the best intentions, it can lead to burnout and frustration.

        1. SnappinTerrapin*

          That thought has crossed my mind before, but you articulated it better than I have so far. Honestly, I haven’t really put in the effort to analyze the issue yet.

          I wonder if that isn’t part of the problem with LW’s employee?

          Having a thought cross my mind is different from actually trying to think it through, although both could technically be covered by the phrase “I thought of that.”

    2. She of Many Hats*

      It might be worthwhile to do a check-in with his reports to see how he is encouraging engagement and whether he is an effective manager to his whole team no matter their genders. And if his responses to you are gender-based, there’s a good likelihood, he tends to manage those who report to him based on gender.

      And while this knee-jerk response is the obvious annoying one, take a look at how he responds to other suggestions and directions. Is there also that tone of “of course, I know/do that”?

    3. Keyboard Jockey*

      I came into the comments to say this too. OP feels comfortable in her position, but women (or others) that are peers or reports of this guy may not feel empowered to shut down this behavior (and may be having their ideas stolen without credit by him).

  18. There You Are*

    This is my ex. It seems that his greatest, deepest fear is being seen as not All Knowing. There was literally nothing I could ever say about anything that he hadn’t already thought of himself.

    I also suspect that his ADHD had something to do with at least part of it. His brain glitches on timelines, the direction of time, and the velocity of time. So while he’s listening to me say something, his brain glitches and tells him that he has heard this information in the past (which, yes, about a nanosecond into the past); so, as far as he is consciously aware, he truthfully has “already thought of that.”

    In our personal relationship, saying, “OK, if you already knew this, why didn’t you act on it?” never ended well. But the dynamics are different between boss and employee, so hopefully the OP asking him to explain why he didn’t act on it will be enough to get him to stop doing this.

    1. bamcheeks*

      It’s my 5yo, who is the youngest and has an imaginary Rainbow Grandma, so that she can respond responds to any suggestion that she might be doing something for the first time with, “Well ACTUALLY I’ve done it before at my Rainbow Grandma’s house!” It’s cute when you’re five, not so much when you’re director level!

      Although, LW, it might help your irritation levels if you mentally snark, “Oh really, was that when you discussed it with your Rainbow Grandma.”

      1. Be Gneiss*

        My little brother, when faced with ANY new food, said “I tried that at Crosby’s house and I didn’t like it.” He ate at Crosby’s house once, in 1st grade. It must have been one hell of a spread, because he was still trying to opt out of new foods with that excuse 5 years later.

      2. stefanie*

        is a Rainbow Somethingorother a requirement of young kids? my daughter has her “rainbow planet” which is where she apparently learned EVERYTHING that I could ever tell her and then some. LOL!

  19. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    LW, w)ould you PLEASE stop saying “I never would have thought of that — so glad to have your expertise in this area,” to him? He might be taking it too literally and too seriously. Every time you say it, you’re reinforcing the idea in his mind that he does, in fact, know more than you.

    1. Magdalena*

      Yes! Came here to say the same thing. You’re acting deferential and reinforcing his attitude. I’d cut it out immediately.

      “That sounds like a good idea. Do you have any concerns before we go forward or are you ready to start on it right away?”

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Thirding this: Think of another phrase with which to respond. This is at least edging into undermining yourself.

      1. Pippa K*

        Yeah, it sounds like there’s a pattern where she occasionally says “you have ideas I’ve never thought of” and he frequently says “you have no ideas I’ve never thought of.” Which is just a bad dynamic that undermines her authority and minimises her expertise while he aggrandises his own.

        1. AbruptPenguin*

          Agreed. Normally, this would be a great response from a boss! But this guy doesn’t need any encouragement to think (or at least present) that he has all the expertise and LW has never had an idea he hasn’t thought of first. There are ways to be supportive and encouraging without laying it on so thick.

    3. Cobol*

      It sounds like Letter Writer may be grateful for his expertise in an area, because he’s suggesting something she never would have thought of.

      I know there’s a tendency for woman to say things that devalue their own expertise based on sexist societal pressures, but also LW is at least a senior director, so let’s give her credit and assume she’s managing correctly.

      1. EA*

        The LW is literally writing into an advice blog for tips on how to manage an employee, so I think we can give advice and not just “assume she’s managing correctly”…

        For the LW, I agree with avoiding this phrasing, and I would try to reduce the focus on the expertise or years of experience of team members (this guy and others on your team). Having more years of experience doesn’t automatically make your contribution to a project more effective. If he does contribute a good idea, I think saying, “That sounds good, how will we put that into play?” is enough.

        1. Cobol*

          She’s not asking how to manage. She’s asking how to deal with this one aspect of it. I have employees who do aspects of our job better than I do, or ever will. I make a point to recognize it.

      2. Stopgap*

        That phrasing would be fine usually, but it’s reinforcing this employee’s know-it-all mindset.

        And assuming that someone’s doing everything correctly does them a disservice when they’re asking for advice.

    4. Aunt Bee’s Pickles*

      LW actually says that there are areas where he knows more than her. There’s no shame in admitting that.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        It just seems unbalanced because it sounds like he never says it, even thought logically there must be areas in which she knows more than he does, and because he has a pattern of saying, yeah, he already thought of that without having demonstrated that he had already thought of that.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        For the record, if I had a habit of responding this way to things, my supervisor–we are both women and the same age–would definitely ask me why I wasn’t coming to her with all these ideas. Not to call me out, necessarily, but to find out if there was a reason I didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

      3. Mansfield Perk*

        Varying up the phrases used to acknowledge you are picking up the other person’s idea would seem wise. So, not just ‘I never would have thought of that’, but ‘Thank you. I like that’, ‘that insight is really helpful’, ‘building on what you just said, I see that…’

  20. kibbitzer*

    AAM’s suggestions are great, but I’d avoid “I want to make sure I’m not doing something that makes you feel pressured” because that might play into his feelings that a female boss isn’t a real boss… if he in fact has such feelings.

    1. Ute*

      yeah… and it leave it with her to change something instead of signaling him that at the very least his wording is odd..

  21. The Green Lawintern*

    I (a woman) had a male report fresh out of school who did the exact same thing and it drove me bananas. I started explicitly asking for his opinion/thoughts at the start of the conversation, he would say he wasn’t sure what to do, and then magically once I had given my feedback it would be “oh, I did think of that.” I don’t know if it was a gendered issue or simply someone anxious to cover over the fact that he didn’t have the correct answer ready. I never addressed it with him, and I wish I had – he needed a lot of handholding, and giving him support was extremely frustrating sometimes because on top of everything else he couldn’t even admit that he needed help in the first place.

    1. Cat Tree*

      I work with a similar man, thankfully infrequently. I think he wants to appear smart and knowledgeable, but doesn’t understand that at his level a willingness to learn is more important. He’ll interrupt me constantly when I’m trying to explain something. I’ll say that our process doesn’t do X, and before I can explain why, he’ll interject that of course we don’t do X because X is impossible. Then I have to go on a tangent to explain that X is very possible and is even done by some other sites in our company, and then I can finally explain why *we* don’t do X as I originally planned to explain. It doesn’t make him seem smarter.

      1. AbruptPenguin*

        This would drive me batty. What a waste of time and energy! Can you tell him to stop interrupting you?

    2. Cobol*

      The big difference is somebody straight out of school really doesn’t have any expertise that you don’t. So you’re absolutely right to nip his behavior in the bud.

  22. anonymous 2*

    I had someone who works for me frequently do this, and I addressed it as a problem using the framing “often, you mention that you already thought of an idea after I bring it up. I’m worried that this means you aren’t bringing forward the ideas as you think of them, which is part of your role.” And then we discussed tactics for her to use to make sure she was naming/bringing forward/following through on ideas. (Having an “idea” is nothing if you don’t act on it).

    In my case, I think it was 1/2 that the employee really HAD thought of this and didn’t know what to do with it, and 1/2 that they were saying they had thought of things they hadn’t. After the conversation, I think they both brought forward more ideas proactively (yay!) and also stopped saying they thought of things after me since it was clear that wasn’t a positive.

  23. Single Parent Barbie*

    When he comes for help, I would start with “tell me what you have already done” and then go from there.

  24. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I’ve had women superiors act this way, and my observation was that it was a control issue. By dismissing the thought as already-rejected, they could continue to control the processes in question.

    The one time a man tried it with me (albeit not a direct superior), it was because the suggestion exploited a hole in his modus operandi that he wasn’t interested in addressing.

    Either way, I’d either ask the person for their experiences as to issues they encountered in implementing the idea, or just outright ignore the objection and move ahead with it anyway.

  25. Cat Tree*

    I interviewed a guy like this! For every question I asked, he would spend 5 minutes explaining to *me*, the person who asked the question, why it was a good question and why the trait I asked about was important for the job that I’m hiring for. I’m just thankful he was so upfront about this that I didn’t make the mistake of hiring him.

    1. pally*

      And yet, demonstrating that he needed to POSSESS said trait(s) didn’t occur to him?

      He’s probably at a loss as to why he wasn’t hired up immediately. Cuz everyone hires for “smart” and not proven ability or skills to do the job-right?

  26. Ute*

    I think it’s important to talk about it with him – while still not taking it personal or letting it mess with your guys’ relationship.
    If he doesn’t get checked on that, he will maybe believe himself that he has already thought of everything his boss is suggesting which might make him wonder why he isn’t the boss soon – but also, if he will be managed by someone else, he might come across more and more arrogant and will have no clue why. I think the older he gets and the younger (maybe) his bosses get, the weirder this response will make him look.

  27. irritable vowel*

    I work with this guy, too. I could almost envision our shared manager writing this letter. I don’t love Alison’s first suggested response, since to me it puts too much of the burden back on LW to assuage feelings that don’t need to be assuaged. This is in no way about what LW is doing to make the guy feel pressured – it’s about him either being unprepared or having a kneejerk “I know that!” response to being told anything by a woman. No need to make it about LW trying to make sure he’s not upset.

  28. Sarah*

    “I am noticing a consistent pattern where you dismiss feedback, stating that you have already thought of it yourself.”


    “If you have already thought of that, why have you not done it or documented it?”

  29. Ms VanSquigglebottoms*

    I would not address the meta-issue, which is likely to be a tricky, awkward, and dissatisfying conversation, but rather the suggestion near the end to ask his ideas first. A director should be bringing strategic thinking to their work, and your job as their manager is not to tell them how to do it but rather to coach them into deeper engagement that results in better outcomes. Probing what your director is thinking will help him focus on the nuances of the work or lay bare just how little effort he’s bringing to it–either way is helpful!

  30. Michelle Smith*

    Sometimes my boss will assume I’m coming to her without having thought things through in advance. Then we just get into an annoying loop. Like one time I asked her what the standard rate for something was in her experience (I had to hire someone for a work thing, don’t want to be too specific here). Her response was that I should Google it…like obviously yes, I already did that and got a bunch of unhelpful responses which is why I was coming to her in the first place as someone who had hired people for that type of work thing in the past. So. Annoying. So yes, definitely make sure you aren’t creating an environment where your employee thinks you think they’re stupid so they’re saying things to let you know that they aren’t and that they actually do have the capacity to think through solutions.

    If the employee was the one writing in, I’d suggest to him what I do with my boss that has seemed to get a more positive response – state upfront (1) what the problem is, (2) what research/efforts I’ve done to come up with a solution, and (3) what I think the best course of action is and asking for feedback and/or permission to implement. Framing it that way rather than proposing the problem and waiting to see if the boss proposes the same solution I was leaning towards seems to work better. I don’t feel infantilized because I no longer get “why haven’t you tried this seemingly obvious thing” responses and presumably my boss feels like I’m not an idiot since I suggested something.

    1. Cobol*

      I have colleagues who are bosses like this. They’re always the one to say don’t bring me problems bring me solutions, but they don’t account for the actual process of determining a solution, or acknowledge that the solution may not be on the same path they want it to be. Quite often they are the same people who don’t like anybody not exactly like them, and who have very low strategic vision.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I hate it when people say that! I can spitball some solutions but I don’t have the authority to implement any of them without my superior’s input. I can at best bring, like, 70% solutions.

      2. Quill*

        Conversely, I’ve had enough bosses who are like that that I catch myself being the thought of that guy sometimes. Because when your relationship with someone is that if you do something wrong they ask why you didn’t ask questions, but if you ask questions they ask why you don’t already know, you spend conversations with them, and with later authority figures, doing no actual information exchange, just self-protection.

    2. JimmyJab*

      My favorite/easiest to deal with questions from my less experienced coworkers start with, “I checked (written source), and googled it and asked (technical person) but couldn’t find an answer.” That lets me know they already tried the sources they should have before asking someone, and avoids me asking if they’ve done these things first, and I can just get to my solution/suggestion. I answer less ideally-worded questions of course, but I really appreciate that this format makes my job answering so quick and simple (at least quicker and simpler than without the preamble).

  31. CubeFarmer*

    I really like the, “So why didn’t you try it?” question or the, “Oh, great! Was there a reason you hadn’t tried it — do you have concerns about doing it that way?” probing question.

    I would love to hear an update about this letter.

  32. Hiring Mgr*

    I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing – you mentioned:

    “I’ve had to have two conversations with him in the past about his productivity levels and my need for him to take complete ownership of projects (he’s in a director-level position). ”

    It sounds like regardless of his ideas and whether he had them or not, he’s not executing on them and may just be covering. I would try to focus more on “how can we start implementing these ideas”..

    But if he’s really not as engaged overall as he should be, that’s not something you can really change and perhaps he’s not the right one for the job.

    1. OP*

      Hiring Mgr,
      I’m the LW, and you’re right. He’s covering. The more I read all the great advice, the more clear that’s becoming. He’s feeling pressured now to produce, and I’m too focused on how that pressure is affecting him, when it’s pressure he 100% needs to feel. Not only does he frequently tell me he thought of something first, but another standard line is “I’ll get that to you next week,” and then he hopes I’ll forget. I oversee enough projects that I am not always able to follow up with him on all of them, and I think he’s taking advantage of that. All of this advice has been eye-opening. Thank you.

  33. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    The reason he is saying the whole “I thought of that already” has nothing to do with you being. female, it has to do with him not being confident. I am not surprised he isn’t taking enough ownership in things either, again comes back to lacking confidence he has in himself.

    That he isn’t correcting or volunteering something when he doesn’t know something also shows he respects you.

    You do need to have a conversation with him about confidence, but I wouldn’t use either of the two scripts.

    1. Capt. Liam Shaw*

      ETA: He probably did think of things he said, just isn’t confident enough to do them. Could be a whole host of reasons, but it comes back to confidence.

      1. Capt. Liam Shaw*

        I am taking the LW at her word in the letter. I added the second part because my first post was a bit vague upon second reading and folks in the comments here love to read posts uncharitably and build straw-man’s.

        1. TechWorker*

          I just don’t think you are though? The LW is not 100% sure there is no sexism involved, nor have they mentioned that they seem under confident. Why are you so sure? (Like, sure speculate, that’s all everyone does here, but I have no idea how you can be certain confidence is the root issue)

  34. Spearmint*

    I’ve been guilty of doing this sometimes when talking to my boss in my current job. I started about six months ago and am still learning the ropes (lots of internal processes and lingo, and custom software, so it takes time). Mostly it’s because I feel insecure about how much I know and whether I’m learning and becoming independent enough in my boss’ eyes, and I want to make it clear that I am being thoughtful about my tasks and not simply coasting. When I say this, I have thought of the idea before, but I didn’t act on it either because I was too swamped with other work to do anything or, since I’m new, I wasn’t confident in proceeding without checking in with my boss, but they brought the topic up first before I could raise the question myself. And there were a couple times where I thought of the idea when doing something else but then forgot about it while doing other work (I can be a bit ADHD).

    In my case I think it’s mostly my own insecurities at work, I don’t think my boss is doing anything wrong, and if anything he tells me I’m learning a bit faster than he anticipated. Oh and we’re both men so gender isn’t a factor.

    1. OP*

      Spearmint, I am the LW, and you sound great! This employee has been in the job for three years, so it’s not an issue of understanding and confidence. I’m glad to know you don’t think your boss is doing anything wrong. I would encourage you, though, to explain your full thought process to your boss when they bring up something you’ve already thought of. I’d love to hear my employee say they were too swamped. When I ask them, repeatedly, if they are overwhelmed, the response is no. Overwhelmed is something I can help them with. Engaging with their work is a lot tougher to handle.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  35. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    The thing I think is missing here is there are a few questions she could ask herself especially given that she wants him to take ownership of projects. Is she giving him the space to do so? Is she giving him her ideas as soon as she thinks of them instead of giving him the time to wrestle with the problem on his own and hearing out his ideas first? Does he work at the same speed as her or does he take more processing time? Does she want him to take ownership but do everything exactly the way she would do it?

    It’s possible that he has thought of those things, and it’s possible that he would have thought of those tings left to his own devices. He’s clearly feeling defensive and she should get to the root of that. It might purely be a “him” thing and it might be he’s defensive because he’s really not up to snuff, but I think beginning with the idea that it’s a solvable problem is the better approach.

    1. OP*

      Hi LLama,
      I’m the LW, and this is good advice. I am definitely faster in the areas where I have expertise, but the last time I made a suggestion for him to take a project further (and got the defensive response) it was in an areas he’s been managing and, as I recalled later, was actually the same suggestion I’d made months earlier that he still hadn’t handled. I do want him to take ownership, but the pattern isn’t that he’ll do these things if left to his own devices, the pattern is that nothing will actually get done.

  36. Unfortunate Admin*

    I’m going to consider this advice from the other side. I’m someone who has on occasion had that response to my boss and just realized it after reading this (but genuinely had an idea on my own an didn’t say anything!).

    I think the reason why I might not always vocalize ideas is because I’m somewhat new to the role and don’t want to overstep or I’m not sure that my ideas are worth mentioning. So it’s coming from a place of insecurity. I realize that’s less likely the case with LW’s employee since he’s a director, but it’s definitely something I can work on and it’s interesting to see a manager’s perspective on this.

  37. Cobol*

    LW, just addressing your “Maybe there’s something else going on,” comment. How big is your organization? Does your boss have insight into the work your report does?

    It’s possible he feels that nobody other than you knows he has a level of expertise (in just the portion you referenced) above you – and potentially he’s the foremost expert in the company.

    There’s a tendency for outsiders to assume boss knows more about everything than employee. Maybe it’s that. But again, maybe he’s an a hole.

    1. OP*

      Hey Cobol,
      Great question. Actually, everyone at our organization knows he has more expertise than I do in a specific area of his work. I work really hard to let him deal directly with our company CEO on areas that he knows more about, and I make sure he gets the credit for anything coming from our area that he thought of and implemented. It’s important to me that my team gets recognition for their efforts. He’s not infallible in that area of expertise, so we do work collaboratively a good deal, and he runs everything past me to sign off on, first, unless I’ve given him the go ahead to work directly with others.

  38. Trout 'Waver*

    I don’t know how titles are at your organization, but I would not expect this level of one-on-one management of someone in a director role.

    There also appear to be some style differences.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      Also, I’m a big fan of “boss speaks last” brainstorming. Let him get his ideas out front before give direction or advice.

  39. Elle by the sea*

    I was actually that guy – am a woman and this was point out to me by my male manager! And he was right! It’s not that I ever intend to BS him or prop myself up, but it was mostly happening because:
    – I was never ready to bring up half baked ideas. If an idea didn’t reach full maturity or didn’t have any support, I simply didn’t bring it up.
    – I did already mention the idea before but I didn’t seem to communicate it clearly enough.

    I think apart from the sexism angle, it’s worth exploring if any of these two cases hold true in his case. These are common for people who spent most of their lives in hyper competitive and hostile environments and were therefore forced to always think on their feet and have an answer to everything.

    1. OP*

      Thanks, Elle – I’ll give it some thought. I do think he came from an environment where that was the case.


  40. kalli*

    I mean, I’d just go ‘so why haven’t you implemented it’ and he either has to explain why it’s a bad idea or why it hasn’t been fully rolled out yet. He thought of it, so he must have one or the other or ‘I’ve implemented it and here’s how it’s going’ in which case, it’s not making enough of a difference at your level and you can address that with him instead; and if he doesn’t have an answer you just move on to implementation like obviously you should try it because there isn’t a downside worth not doing so.

    If he’s just trying to save face because a woman thought of something before he did then actually having to prove he thought about it will move the conversation forward without you changing your behaviour or openly modifying to preserve his feelings. Either he’ll stop saying he thought of it and come back with actual content in responses, or the conversation won’t stall as you discuss the idea.

  41. Lorax*

    So, I feel like I *am* this employee (and I’m a woman, so I wouldn’t necessarily assume this has anything to do with gender). For me, being told something I already know is my biggest pet peeve in the world. It just feels really paternalistic and condescending — like, why did you assume I hadn’t already thought of that and/or wasn’t already planning on doing that? Do you think I’m incompetent? I just knee-jerk bristle at it. Depending on the level of involvement, it can also feel micro-manager-y. Like, whether or not I do things your way is not worth both of our time, especially if it’s a small issue! Plus, given how busy and stressed we all are in my field, it feels like a waste of time to talk through something I already assumed we both were thinking, or I thought was so basic/evident that I didn’t feel the need to express it. So on top of feeling condescended to and micro-managed, I now also feel frustrated and trapped and panicked by having my time wasted.

    Now, I know this is a problem (I’ve been in therapy and have some really good breathing exercises!), but if your employee is anything like me, it might help to phase suggestions as questions, coming from a place of curiosity, rather than assumption. Just asking, “Seems like X is a problem. Have you considered Y?” might magically make the response disappear. (Or, you’ll still get a “yes, I’ve thought of that,” but it will be on your terms and in a way that sets you up for further discussion around the suggestion, not in a way that shuts down conversation and makes you feel disrespected.)

    That said, my experience with this might not be the same as your employee’s at all, especially if you have other performance concerns and haven’t seen evidence of his implementing your suggestions on his own. But I wanted to give some more context about why you might be seeing this, since, again, it’s easy to make assumptions. It’s also still a problem, no matter why it’s happening. Regardless, Alison’s scripts should make him realize the issue if you want to tackle this head on. I realized my responses were a problem when my manager just stared at me after one of my “I already thought of that” replies. A good, nonplussed stare can go a long way!

  42. Geek Girl*

    I worked with that guy, too. He would ask how I would do something and when I told him, he would say “that’s what I was thinking.” He never took notes, and I would have to explain things over and over. We were the same rank for many years but I had more experience in the field. His thing was to try and impress you with his masters degree and his vast experience in public administration. All great, but we were working in crime analysis. He was also the guy who would ask one more useless question at the end of a long meeting that could have been an email. Once I out-ranked him, he quit trying to be condescending and became an utter suck up. It was about his insecurities, and once I accepted that, it was easier to ignore the blah blah. That and not asking for questions at the end of meetings.

  43. An Honest Nudibranch*

    Wanted to second the advice of asking him for what he’s tried first, if this is a pattern – gives him less of an ability to retroactively say he thought of something, and is more efficient in the case he has indeed actually been trying these things already.

    But bringing up the pattern and asking him about it might reveal useful information! Honestly, when I’ve had the impulse to pull “I already thought of that,” it’s been because the suggestions felt condescending or like a question about my competence (I’m not a guy, fwiw). That’s not necessarily what’s happening in this case, but it’s an example of one of several potential things that might be behind that reaction, and it matters which one it is.

  44. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    On the “his idea” part: as others have said, ask probing questions – “oh? why did you take that approach?” etc, he will soon trip himself up. I would just ask him directly about the pattern though, but that may be too direct for some situations.

    On the bigger pattern: he clearly isn’t operating with the level of autonomy and ‘seniority’ expected of a Director, and that is the part that should be addressed (which “my idea” is probably a symptom of). Not sure if senior managers typically go on a PIP, but there must be an equivalent process by which an under-performing Director is addressed.

  45. Mill Miker*

    This is probably a less likely scenario, but it might be worth confirming that you’re both on the same page about where you are in the project’s timeline.

    If he thinks he’s checking in with you after completing step 2, and before moving on to step 3, but you’re expecting him to already be well into step 3, then it’s very easy to end up in a situation where person A thinks they never get a chance to think for themselves, and person B thinks person A needs constant handholding.

    I know I’ve been in a situation where someone comes in with a ton of suggestions on how to do step 3, to help get me “unstuck”, but the only holdup is that step 2 just took longer than they would have liked. So I think this is an especially easy trap to fall into if he’s generally underperforming progress-wise.

  46. CM*

    I confess I was once this person, and it came from a long history of needing to prove how smart I was. I just had a really hard time when someone said something I felt like I should already know, and often I’d blurt out something like, “Yes, of course, I know that.” I needed to grow up a bit, feel more secure, and become aware of what I was doing. Some of these responses are along the lines of gently humiliating the guy, but maybe just consider saying, “When I make a suggestion, you don’t have to tell me you already thought of it.” He will know you’ve noticed — and maybe he will start noticing how often he says it.

  47. NPTraveler*

    I had a coworker do this exact thing but she had a spin and she would say “Yes I mentioned that to Suzy” or “I told Ann that and she thought it was a good idea.” Well Suzy and Ann are her friends in another office and there was no way to check without coming off rude. I tried all versions of What did you do next? Or How did you proceed? No help. I just held down my frustration and she finally left for another reason. We’re both women. I think is was a power thing.

  48. Raida*

    y’know what liars can’t do? answer detailed questions to a subject matter expert.

    “I already thought of that”
    “Oh well then, tell me do you think that the [Term1] has value in regards to [Term2] in light of this project’s [Needs]?”

    “I already thought of that”
    “Great! Do you think that the [Core Concept] would have [Desired Impact] with Project?”
    “Well that *is* interesting, I would have thought it was a perfect match – let me just grab us both a coffee and you run me through the logic.” ~big enthusiastic smile~

    He will stop doing it real fast, after
    A) trying to end the conversation
    B) fumbling with concepts which you then are super supportive about being happy to clear that up for him
    C) saying it’s in the investigative phase
    D) arcing up at you for not trusting him/not believing him/trying to push your favourite stuff into his project/babying him/being too busy right now to walk you through his work/other types of professional rudeness

    B and/or C are his best bet, easy to cover up his lack of either knowledge or progress.
    A you can just allocate time at a catch up so he’d not be able to get away for long.
    D he’d be setting up a HR mediation where you’d need to go through how you are his manager and did do expected tasks in a professional manner in that role and he’d need to make himself look like a pain to manage – very much kicking the can down the road and unlikely (if he’s smart) to happen.

    Something to consider is… People are often busy and have a plan at work. A manager/Exec/Board/Politician coming up with some great idea or wanting to use a specific tool that nobody is familiar with just creates more work. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to say “Yeah we’re already looking at that.” to A) shut someone up and B) hope they go away.
    Because y’know what nobody likes at work? To be told “You’re doing great, let me tell you about how my expertise would be valuable to this task, so go do more work with skills you don’t have. With no additional time. Or budget. Or staff.”

    Are you able to see a pattern because you ‘offer’ too often? Does his work have *time* to take into account these suggestions? Are you suggesting early enough in the piece to be useful and not derail work that’s already been done? And are you available to provide the expertise or are you telling him to do it himself when he doesn’t know wtf you are talking about? Are you providing him with opportunities to get training on the skills that would be valuable?

    You gotta run through all of that before trying to catch him in a lie because if he goes with “you suck, why won’t you go away” as a response you are going to have to justify that you’ve only done this in a helpful and supportive and *informed* way.

    1. OP*

      I’m the LW, and these are good questions to consider, thank you. He’s a director, so the expectation is that he will also let me know if the workload is too heavy and/or problem solve to get the help he needs (he has the ability to hire short-term assistance whenever it’s needed). I have asked him multiple times if he is overwhelmed (trying to assess the productivity issues) and the answer is “no.” He has no reason to expect me to react negatively to any questions he has about his work because I’ve never chastised him for asking a question.

      I do think that I’m falling into a pattern of just telling him what to do because I’ve stopped expecting him to take any initiative beyond the bare minimum. When he does have ideas, they are rarely implemented. I haven’t followed up when that happens because typically his ideas aren’t in priority areas – his ideas are “nice to haves” when he’s ignoring priorities.

      Wow, the more I respond to these questions, the more I realize he’s a huge problem, and I’ve allowed him to be.

      Thanks, again, for chiming in!

  49. SFW*

    Oh this immediately felt extremely gendered to me. When he says “I already thought of that, I just haven’t done it yet,” I would ask why he hasn’t implemented it. And if it continues why he isn’t exploring all these options before coming to me.

  50. Bruce*

    Ooo, I like “You also might try asking for his ideas first before you offer your own …” ! He might surprise you and have some ideas for improvement, but it also makes it less likely for him to claim “oh I already thought of that”

    1. Daniel*

      I was just going to say the same thing. If he tells her what his ideas are first and her idea isn’t one of them, then it would be hard for him to claim he already thought of it. Although I suspect he would then try to claim that he did but forgot about it.

  51. T'Cael Zaanidor Kilyle*

    On the one hand, the whole “I thought of this before you asked me” routine sounds annoying as f–k. On the other hand I can’t really think of an appropriate response for a manager to give in the moment other than “That’s great! I’m glad we’re on the same page — please implement it and let me know if you need any support.” Any response along the lines of “then why didn’t you bring it up before?” could sound defensive and end up undermining your own position.

    It’s hard to say what’s motivating this behavior — it could be “my male pride is bristling at a woman who’s approximately the same age as me telling me what to do,” or it could just be general insecurity. Combined, perhaps, with an awareness that there are some areas where he falls short, and feeling a need to assert himself in other areas to compensate.

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