Why Your Boss Keeps Killing Your Great Ideas

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It’s 9am on a Monday morning. You’re gathered around a meeting table.

“Listen up, people,” says the SVP who’s leading your team. “We need new ideas. Fresh, creative approaches, things that push the envelope. If we don’t get them, I don’t know what’s going to happen. You have until same time next week. I want to see a bare minimum of 5 raw ideas before this time next week. Go! Push the envelop, people, I’ve got pressure from above to make big things happen.”

Wondering if both your job and the future of your division lie in the balance, you set to work. The next morning you email the SVP a set of ideas. They’re rough, but highly-creative. You’ve never heard anything like them. Fifteen minutes later you get a reply. “Nice effort,” says the boss, “but these just aren’t quite right. Keep at it.”

The next day, you try again, submitting 3 new concepts, each one better than the first batch. Minutes later, a similar reply hits your inbox. “I really appreciate your hard work, but these are just too to different, too risky.” This dance goes on daily for weeks. Not just with you, but with the SVP and the other members of your team.

You begin to wonder…

How can a group of smart, innovative people brainstorm more than 100 ideas and have them all be rejected out of hand as being either too dull or, more often, too risky? Is the entire team really that incapable of creativity?

Turns out, the problem may not be the team’s ideas but rather your “leader’s”‘ inability to validate them…

A recent study conducted by professor Jennifer Mueller at the University of Pennsylvania revealed something that does not bode well for organizations.

Team leaders often reject highly-creative ideas not because those ideas don’t have potential, but rather because the leaders themselves are not equipped to handle the fear, uncertainty, exposure and anxiety that rides along with validating, then backing an idea that is innovative, but also necessarily carries potential risk of loss and exposure to judgment.

It gets worse. Most managers not only reject good, highly-creative ideas on a regular basis, they have no idea they’re rejecting them because of their own lack of innovation mindset coping skills.

In the study, Mueller et al shared:

People often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal…people can hold a bias against creativity that is not necessarily overt, and which is activated when people experience a motivation to reduce uncertainty…. Furthermore, the bias against creativity interfered with participants’ ability to recognize a creative idea. These results reveal a concealed barrier that creative actors may face as they attempt to gain acceptance for their novel ideas.

Turns out, many people in supervisory/leadership roles have become so afraid of having to act on edgy ideas and dance with uncertainty, they’ve unintentionally blinded themselves to the existence of the very thing they clamor for.

Question is, what do we do about it?

Here are a few thoughts…

1. Build intelligent Uncertainty Awareness & Management Training into the training programs for all team leaders, managers and executives.

Maybe what organizations really need more of is not better people and ideas, but rather leaders who are equipped with “uncertainty scaffolding”—mindset skills, practices and strategies that allow them to be comfortable with uncertainty—capable of opening them to first seeing and then acting upon the great ideas that are already being laid at their feet.

With most modern organizational training, as employees rise up the management food chain, they receive additional training in the content needed for their jobs, leadership strategies, social dynamics, best practices, time management and more. But the specific, proven mindset practices, tools and strategies needed to wrangle uncertainty are never trained, let alone explored.

This may be a reflection of a flawed assumption that you either “have that ability or you don’t,” when in fact, it is a skill that’s not only trainable, but mission critical to success on an individual and organizational level.

In a world where companies need to not only exist, but discover and execute on the opportunities delivered by an environment of persistently amplified uncertainty, this skill set is needed like never before.

2. Counter the management negative creativity bias with an unbiased co-decision-maker.

Bring in a second manager who is neither vested in, nor will be held responsible for the the outcome of any ideas that are accepted and executed. In theory, this would serve to counter the underlying negative creativity bias and allow truly creative ideas to surface and be allocated resources. But, it’s not likely to work well in practice for a few reasons.

One, there is no such thing as a complete lack of bias. If you’re human and alive, on some level-you’re biased. It may not be against ideas, but it may be against people, entities and circumstances. There may even be underlying political reasons to want to see a colleague succeed or fail. And like the negative creativity bias, people are often unaware of the existence of their own biases, let alone the impact on their decision-making processes.

Two, this unbiased proxy will not have the same level of intuition, specific segment experience and understanding of the unique abilities, limitations, history and approaches of the members of the other person’s team. That may make them more able to objectively identify and counter a negative creativity bias, but less able to understand the social dynamics of a team and more inclined to validate ideas that would be viable in a vacuum, but not executable in the real world.

In the end…

We are all human. We’re largely hardwired to run from decisions and actions that lead us further down a rabbit hole. That leads us to reject not only our own creative ideas, but the envelope-pushing ideas of those we lead and back. Because validating our team-members “unprovable” ideas, then allocating resources to them makes them ours. If the ideas go down in flames, so do we.

Problem is, in a world where what got us here ain’t gonna get us there, this phenomenon is death not only to individual power, but to organizational innovation and progress.

The answer, at least from my perspective, is to do 3 things…

One – alert team leaders to the existence of the problem—most managers have an innate negative creativity bias.

Two – explain how this leads to an inability and unwillingness to see, validate and back highly-innovative ideas.

Three – equip those same leaders with the mindset skills and abilities needed to embrace truly innovative ideas.

Easy task? No. Necessary for evolution, innovation and progress? Yes.

Curious, what do you think? Have you experienced either side of this dynamic?

Share your thoughts below…


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27 responses

27 responses to “Why Your Boss Keeps Killing Your Great Ideas”

  1. Jim Van Wyck says:

    What you write in this article is unquestionably true. But from my point of view, being conservative is a natural consequence of a successful organization.

    New ideas, and especially “envelope-pushing” ideas are almost always bad. Perhaps only 1 in 100 radical suggestions will work in the real world.

    I personally think it’s good for organizations to make out-of-the-box ideas work really hard for their acceptance. That’s not to say there should be complete closure to this kind of idea, just that putting a high bar for acceptance is not as bad an idea as one might think.

    Another good and thought-provoking article… thanks


  2. Al Smith says:

    Great post Jonathan. Problem. Truth. Facts. Then Solutions. Thank you. I experienced this at several companies. The big dogs ask for input and ideas, then shoot them all down. Or worse, after time passes, implements the proposed changes and takes credit for them. Wow.

    A lot of it is still the old way of thinking and the one problem that is hardest to deal with; The EGO. Anyway, really appreciate this post and thanks again for all you do.


    • Sabine says:

      So true – Al. It can be quite discouraging. And you also have those mega-micro-managers that have to do everything themselves. No matter how many years of viable expertise and experience their team brings to the table, the final product is written, conceptualized and produced by said micro-manager. Ironically, the results are usually the same – ineffective and non-producing – because the audience has heard/read the same message again and again, with nothing new or exciting to gain. This mentality becomes a BIG problem with home-grown email campaigns, which are an unfortunate by-product of any micro-managed company. That weekly email in the reader’s inbox is deleted with the click of a mouse, because the message has been sent before, over and over again.

      Thanks for the great article Jonathan. It’s insight like this that makes it good to feel like you’re not alone out there!

      • Brendan says:

        Sabine – In most organizations micro-management is essential. You truly need one person to steer the ship. A perfect example is Steve Jobs.

        As an owner myself it’s great to accept innovative ideas and what not but when it comes down to it “if you want it done right you gotta do it yourself”. I was once working for an organization and felt smothered in creativity, and the concept of micro-management was difficult to accept, however it is the most efficient management style to use.

        Allow autonomy but be sure to monitor consistently and provide constructive criticism.

        Just saying –

  3. Kate Howe says:

    This fear to take on bold new ideas in big organizations seems to be the source of the crutch to bring in in consultants to supply the risky ideas. As a creative who has worked both for consultancies and in-house, I have always found it baffling how in an in-house context, I feel neutered and the work I produce is completely watered down. On the other hand, as a consultant coming in from the outside, I am expected to present those crazy ideas, and then empowered to move them forward for the organization. There are very few organizations who maintain truly great internal creative teams, probably for the reasons you site.

  4. DJ says:

    I’ve been on both sides of this particular issue. It’s frustrating to say the least in either seat. I think that the only real solution is awareness on both sides. When you’re pitching ideas, know that the person you’re pitching them to is going to see the risk side as much more prominent than what the brainstormer sees, and on the other side, as a decision maker, know that my decisions may be affected by inflated perceptions of risk. I don’t know how you stop this from happening, but awareness seems like the first step in getting through or around the problem.

  5. BZTAT says:

    I admit to being on both sides of the dynamic.

    In my 20 years in mental health services, I continually ran into managers who said they desired creativity, yet they went to great effort to suppress it. They lacked the courage to implement out of the mainstream ideas, and they seemed to feel threatened by those who might usurp them.

    But in recent efforts to guide a floundering nonprofit as a volunteer I have found myself shooting down I ideas that seem too idealistic. Thx for reminding me to practice what I preach.

  6. Rob Duncan says:

    Very thought-provoking and enjoyable article Jonathan. I have empathy for both sides in this kind of situation. I remember one of my my bosses saying to me that I could see maybe 20% of his job, and he could see maybe 20% of his boss’ job. I always remembered that when I moved into middle-senior management.

    It can be difficult to be caught in the middle when you look up and you know there is only one right answer due to various pressures at the top level, and yet you want to keep your team motivated and have them feel involved in generating new ideas.

    I think part of a manager’s job is to absorb and shield their team from some of the more tedious negatives than happen externally and at higher levels, so they can do their work without worrying about things they can’t control.

    On the other hand, it can be helpful for employees to feel out if there are any constraints that should be applied to their creative ideas so they can be operating in the right ballpark. An open discussion of what features a great and workable idea might have and what a winner might look like can likely help focus everybody and lead to less free-floating frustration as ideas are passed over.

    Open communication up and down and a collaborative mindset will go a long way in this effort.

  7. Jeff Munn says:

    Great post, Jonathan. Lots to think about here. I wonder how the mindset would change if managers were explicitly asked to compare the risk of the new with the risk of staying the same? We all seem to have a bias that staying on the same course does not involve any risk. It’s the new, the untested, that seems risky, but staying the course can often be the riskiest option of all.

  8. Dennis says:

    10 ways to stop a great idea in its tracks and discourage the next one too.

  9. Mike Urbonas says:

    Nice article with practical steps to counter “idea killing.”

    I have added a link to this article to my recent article on a similar subject: Organizations whose managers seem to habitually shoot down ideas will end up with “potted plant syndrome”:

    Digging deeper, WHY do some organizations tend to shoot down ideas so readily? I suggest such organizations, at their core, have an unfortunate culture that disdain innovation in favor of rigid “problem solving.” More here, I welcome everyone’s comments:

  10. Dear Jonathan –

    I’ve met people like this – and what they want is that it is their idea.

    This takes some diplomacy. It has to be presented as a “germ” of an idea with a sincere request that that boss add his genius to it.

    After all, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as the company moves forward.

    That stubbborn boss will remember where it came from.

  11. Tom Bentley says:

    Jonathan, I’ve witnessed that kind of reflex resistance to new ideas, no matter their merit, on many occasions. (Sheesh, I’ve probably been on the resistant end too.) Great idea for intelligent Uncertainty Awareness & Management Training to tickle, tug or throw that initial “no” away.

    But I think you need a better acronym than IUAMT (though it does have the cadence of a Beatles song, I am he and you are me…)

  12. Lucas Held says:

    Jonathan – thought-provoking past, as always. One way to win an argument is to first make sure you’re seeing what the other side — in this case the manager — sees. In this case, what she or he is seeing is this: I’m going to devote resources to something unproven that may fail or, worse, has some risk I haven’t thought about and which will damage the firm’s reputation and me.

    So: While I think the problem you’ve diagnosed is true (premature rejection of innovation), I think the remedies you’ve mentioned are difficult to achieve. It’s difficult to change management training, or bring in an outsider to an internal meeting.

    So – what can be done? Here’s a short list.

    1. When proposing a new idea, bring up the risks, assess them, and describe how they might be mitigated.

    2. Describe the ways in which the new idea may have some progenitors, or may be rooted in current practice.

    3. Suggest that when considering new ideas, that the group consider two risks: a) acceptance of a bad idea; b) rejection of a good idea. We tend not to focus on the second, but there are plenty of examples. Witness American Idol and the Sopranos, which were both rejected by at least one TV network (http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/blogs/2011/tv-news/simon-reveals-idol-got-rejected/. This is exactly what’s going on in the story you tell – many great ideas might be prematurely eliminated without serious thought.

    4. Suggest that when evaluating new ideas, that the firm adopt a staged process for screening new ideas. That is – develop a pool. Then make the first screen some basic criteria: for example, potential reward, congruence with mission or core competencies. Later on, one can discuss risk, or cost, as the latter can be mitigated. This means that new ideas (however odd they sound at first) get some consideration.

    Finally, understand that when the boss says “give me some creative ideas” what she is likely to be REALLY saying is: Come up with some ideas that are likely to be effective, which we can pilot without committing vast sums of money, and which we go into knowing the risks. The lesson from innovation studies is that to get a really good new idea, it’s helpful to start with many.

    Lucas Held

  13. That explains a lot. Enjoying reading about the Lead process in the book. A friend works in that area and I had no idea what it was but understanding it better now.

    The take away for me is how can you tell if an ideas good or not unless you actually try it?

  14. JohnB says:

    “We need knew ideas. Fresh, creative approaches, things that push the envelope. If we don’t get them, I don’t know what’s going to happen….”

    I’ve actually experienced a statement like this from my upper management 3 times in my career. In one case it was a plea that went something like this: “Have you guys come up with something (in secret and instead of doing the work we told you to do) that we can sell in the next few months and save the company?”

    In each case the company that was in this fairly desperate place was out of business in 18 months.

    To be honest, if I hear something like this any more, the first thing I do is clean up my resume and get it back out on Dice and Monster. Then I call all the recruiters I know and find out what the latest “hot” skill is in my field. Then I go build something that proves I have that skill (on the weekends of course, not on company time.)

    Just wanted to point out that there are other options besides convincing those who don’t want to innovate to take your ideas…

  15. Laurel Black says:

    Sad to say, this resistance to creativity often occurs when outside consultants (such as myself) are trying to find solutions for their clients. You can see the little thought balloons over their heads that say “How can I sell this idea/solution/innovation up the chain? Yipes.” I think the suggestions shared by Lucas are excellent for outside contractors as well as in-house employees, and I am going to remember them.

  16. Annette says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head: hellicopter management and creativity simply doesn’t go together.

  17. Knut says:

    Wouldn’t a collaborative innovation platform possibly highlight ideas that several people believed in? And in the stage of brainstorming i think it is strange to let any leader do any form of pre-screening. It is as you say, leaders don’t see the possibilities, they only see the problems.

    This should be done through a collaboration, and when a handful of ideas become prominent the leader will take a decision as to what is plausible or not concerning strategy and capacity?

  18. Nickie says:

    I was a manager for over 20 years. I discovered that most people just do not want to listen to each other, especially those “under” them. Most of them have such big egos that it scares them to think that anyone “under” them could have an idea that could work, thereby threatening their own existence, because all the positive attention isn’t focused on them.

  19. Allison says:

    Have you seen Meg Wheatley’s passage in Perseverance (p. 109) on paradigm blindness? It’s a great piece on the “value of invisibility.”

    I’ve been in situations when “bosses” said, “What we want is something truly innovative and cutting edge” but they meant was, “Dazzle me and you can stay. Bore me and you’ll be on the lay off list.” Not the most conducive conditions for feeling “free” to create, I must say.

    For those with good intentions, many do not understand how to create the environment that truly supports innovation. If more could consider your suggestions, we could move to better choices for creative minds.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your insights and suggestions.

  20. Darren Beck says:

    Great thought-provoking article. The reality is that there seems to be three camps of leadership in my experience:
    (1) the pretenders–the kind who claim to want a synergistic approach to stuff, but reject ideas (or worse, take credit) and hang that rejection over people’s heads; someone posted that it is sort of the reality of a successful company. However, I’ve seen it stifle success over time. Feels like this is the overwhelming majority share.

    (2) the Steve Jobs’–this is the sort of trash the brightness and take credit for stuff but occasionally allow someone else to shine. These leaders maintain a dictatorial hold, but show just enough benevolence or brilliance or whatever that really resilient and bright people out last them and move forward and upward. Rare enough, but these leaders seem to be the ones creating amazing things in various areas. They exact greatness and are generally excruciatingly hard on themselves and others.


    (3) the real deal–these are true democratic leaders; share ideas, share insights, develop others, take credit where credit is due, but give it even more. Working in this environment is a rush. It is not hard to put in long hours on a tough deadline or do thing away from the office to facilitate the success of the team. In my experience, this is the rarest one of all.

    As this blog is about learning and creativity and so much more, any other camps I may have missed? I think my work in and out of education has seen a great number of the pretenders, few of the Steve Jobs’ and very few real deals. Most any others are simply variations on one of the themes above.

    (By the way, great comments and great blog! Glad I was surfing and found it because it is awesome stuff from Jonathan and the rest of you. Many thanks!)

  21. Mary Louise Penaz says:

    I’m stealing all these great ideas for how to save great ideas. 🙂

  22. […] shared disturbing information I know all too well. Leaders’ inability to handle uncertainty kills innovation (without leaders recognizing they are the […]

  23. […] A few weeks ago, blogger Jonathan Fields posted this tantalizing headline: “Why your boss keeps killing your great ideas.” […]

  24. […] Here’s his post on why your boss thinks your ideas suck like a sour lemon and what you should do about it. Read it all here. […]

  25. I’ve worked with Directors/Managers who are both High and Low Uncertainty Avoidant. You can’t really blame them for acting the way they do- either way.

    Both their personal and corporate cultural background have a huge impact on how they handle these types of situations.

    Unfortunately, too many companies create a culture of conflict (or even potential conflict) avoidance. I think all this does is hinder growth and momentum.