Please reject my idea
May 9, 2017
When was the last time you made a proposal at work that was rejected? Was it quickly out of hand? Or was it “death by a thousand cuts”?
This experience has happened to almost everyone at work. Depending on how it is handled, rejection of ideas can feel like incivility or even discrimination. It can lead good employees to disengage from their work, metaphorically hiding under the table rather than risk feeling like they and their ideas are being shot down again.
Recently, I had an idea rejected at work. Fortunately, my boss is possibly the most thoughtful person in the world. But that does not mean we always agree. We can disagree yet maintain mutual respect, trust, and appreciation. Nevertheless, it was frustrating, and it was disappointing. But it led to something better.
Let me explain: Over the past year, demand our programs at the Center for Positive Organizations has grown pretty much across the board. We have more students in our learning programs, more people attending our events, and more leaders in our co-learning community. This happened in a year when our budget was reduced by 30% due to the expiration of a major gift. As you can imagine, this has put a lot of strain on the team. I am ever so proud of how they have responded to the challenge.
Simultaneously, my own role has become more complex. I feel a constant tension between supporting internal operations and connecting with external partners. This is a dilemma familiar to anyone building a business (or, in our case, a social enterprise).
We needed to evolve how we work in order to match the changing demand system. I proposed that we hire or promote someone to spend more time being a servant leader to our staff, and I would focus more externally. The idea was given consideration, but the response was no. The rejection was swift and it was consistent. Yet the decision was not accompanied by any viable alternative suggestions. “Go figure it out,” was the implicit message. “Find something better.”
I felt grumpy about this rejection but was still committed to the goal of finding a way to manage what needed to be done for us to be successful. Living in that uncomfortable creative tension of having a pressing goal but no clear path, new options gradually started to emerge. By serendipity, Rice University Professor Scott Sonenshein (a member of our Research Advisory Board) recently released Stretch, a fantastic book on doing more with less. Scott gave a Positive Links talk at Michigan Ross which helped me reframe the problem. I then had a walking meeting with my colleague Brian to swap notes on team structures, which gave me new ideas. Finally, planning for three weeks of leave this summer for my wedding and honeymoon, while very exciting, also forced me to think creatively about how things will get managed without me being so hands on every day.
The resulting idea was better than the original band-aid solution of adding staff members. Drawing on some of the principles of self-organizing teams, I decided to democratize our team processes. Companies such as Cascade Engineering have skillfully experimented with enabling people to manage themselves with great results. Why couldn’t we take a step in that direction?
We are now running an experiment where each meeting has its purpose and design laid out for anyone to run it. This means that as our personnel changes over time, we can easier assimilate new people to our way of working. The person running each meeting is selected based on a principle, not a title or a name. This means that although meeting attendees may vary, there is always someone clearly responsible for running each meeting. For instance, our morning stand-up huddle is run by the newest person on the team that is present, and I happily defer to her. Our monthly lunch and learn meetings are led by whoever signed up to offer the first update. If I have to miss meetings, whether it be to give a presentation to executives or to get married, it is clear how things should run, and how to support each other.
We came to what promises to be a better way of doing things: a way that is potentially more effective at supporting people, providing leadership development opportunities, and creates stronger social fabric on the team. And we did it without increasing headcount or budget.
This process of finding opportunity in disappointment can be applied elsewhere. There were five important steps:
- The intention was clear. As my colleague and transformational leadership expert Bob Quinn asks so often: “What is the result we want to create?”
- The constraint was clear. What can’t we have or do in pursuing this goal?
- The mental reframe. How can this be the catalyst to coming up with something even better?
- The solutions emerged. Who and what can we turn to for further ideas? How can multiple ideas be combined to achieve our goals?
- The experiment. How will we test potential solutions?
Having our ideas rejected is not a pleasant experience. But there are a million ways to do everything. With the right perspective and approach, we can turn it into an even better outcome for everyone involved.
This post was written for the Huffington Post’s Great Work Cultures initiative.