How Do You Tell Your Boss They Have a Bad Idea?

May 27, 2024

By Keith Sones, seasoned utility industry executive

“That’s a great idea!” I said enthusiastically.

My boss had just given me my first commission as a new safety and health professional, and I was eager to applaud his proactivity. Low in the food chain, I figured it couldn’t hurt to burnish his ego a bit as well.

Turns out it was a terrible idea.

I was in the first week of my new job, the second year of the new decade. The 1980’s for me had been about learning more about myself and the world around me. Leaving high school, going to university, traveling, becoming dissatisfied with my preprogrammed life, working as a carpenter and factory slave, then finally finding my passion and going back to school. Now I was a credentialed professional, ready to tackle industry and make my mark.

I was also, as it turned out, eager to please my new boss. As the new kid in a large organization, I’d been tasked with, as expected, a junior level assignment of updating a training manual. The subject, confined space entry, was of critical importance to those working in tanks, vats, large pipes and the like. The potential for toxic air and fatal injury required workers to know some very specific information to keep themselves safe, so I felt like I’d been given a sacred trust. Their safety was in my hands and I would not let them down.

As I dove into the instruction manual, I quickly came to the realization that while the information was vital, the way it was being presented was…well, it was boring. I mean, as a self professed safety and health fanatic being paid to impart specific knowledge, even I would be asleep five minutes after the instructor started talking. Rapidly becoming disillusioned about my mission, I started to fear presenting my updates. Perhaps I could title it Another Dreadful Safety Course 2.0. Or maybe it could be named How to Put An Audience to Sleep in Three Minutes. In any event, my passion dissolved and I knew I had to do something different. I definitely had not spent the previous two years working my tail off to settle for a project that on a good day would aspire to mediocrity.

Sitting at my desk and staring at my suitcase sized computer, a vision entered my brain. Images of people actually learning floated into my mind. They were using the tools that the instruction manual described on paper. Standing beside, no, wait, ON TOP of a mobile tank. Ladders, testing equipment, rescue gear, the whole thing. No books or overhead slides (PowerPoint hadn’t been created yet) to mentally destroy the crews. Just pure experience. Elation flooded me. THIS was my mission. I would do it differently!

The real education was about to begin.

My excitement was palpable as a I entered my boss’s office and proceeded to blurt out my idea. It would be fantastic, I assured him. Real learning would happen. We’d be better!

I certainly wasn’t prepared for his response. Arms crossed, he heard me out, then sternly said “no”.

‘Huh?’ I thought. But this was a wonderful idea. Our department would surely reap all sorts of kudos for dramatically improving the training program. Sure, there was a cost to get it developed, but what did that matter? The company basically had the Safety First type slogans splashed everywhere. Who could turn us down?

“No” he said emphatically. “It’ll cost way too much. We’ll never get it approved. Besides, the training program is already good, we just need to get it tightened up. Even you told me it was a great idea. Don’t try to change the world on your first day.” With that, he turned back to his computer, indicating clearly the conversation was at its end.

I shuffled back to my desk, the bright images of the future replaced with thoughts of despair. ‘Is this my future?’ I wondered. ‘Updating training programs that aren’t very good in the first place?’ The day ended, and not soon enough.

Occasionally in life, we do things that in retrospect seem risky, imprudent, even reckless. They might be fueled by alcohol, drugs, or sheer stupidity. In my case, what happened next was driven by my inexperience in the corporate world, a strong respect for facts and an upbringing that taught me to be tenacious in the face of adversity. Given all of that, it seemed reasonable to challenge what my boss had told me.

In his office at the first opportunity the next day, I pressed my case. Our employees would be better trained. Our risk would decrease. It might cause others to rethink how they delivered their training programs. It would reinforce the idea that safety was truly important. Where was the downside?

To his credit, he listened to my rant, then with a sly smile said “OK, sure, why not?” I was taken aback by his complete and sudden about face, but a win is a win I figured. “But” he said “you need to convince the other departments of the idea and have them help pay for it.”

Pay dirt! I was off and running. The hard part was done, I told myself. How hard could it be to get the others on board? I hit the phones.

“No!”

“Forget it.”

“Dumb idea.”

“I’m not paying a dime.”

And on it went. A few fellow safety missionaries offered support but for the most part I was a lone World War II Spitfire being shot down by a modern squadron of fighter jets. The most confusing part was that there was no debate about the merits of the idea. No discussion about the reams of academic data that showed hands on training is far better than classroom lectures alone. No one even offered an attempt at a counter argument other than it cost too much. Nothing. I was alone.

Good thing I had youthful enthusiasm on my side.

Down but not out, I carried on. I once again worked the phones, found a few compatriots willing to contribute to the cause and got it constructed. The budget was blown big time and my boss’s boss was only too happy to remind me of the importance of budgets and their link to employment security. But it got done.  We created something that hadn’t been done before in the industry – a large trailer where tradespeople could test the air, climb inside, rescue their co-workers and assess the risks. Vendors provided equipment in exchange for some advertising and most importantly, the crews that actually did the work liked it. All in all, it was a success.

Over the years and with that experience in my rear view mirror, I wondered why so many people opposed what I thought was a great idea. But as is most often the case, reflection and a bit of investigative work told the story. The various actors can be grouped into categories.

  1.  My boss wrote the original program. I directly assaulted his work.
  2.  Some of the other safety trainers were old school and weren’t ready to adopt anything new.
  3. Department managers were rewarded for managing budgets, not for subjective system improvements, now commonly called culture.

Which only left one question. Why did my boss spin on his heels and let me proceed after his first adamant “No”?

Because he realized he had nothing to lose. If I failed, he could offer an “I told you so” moment. If I succeeded, I was his protégé and he was the mentor for the world to see.  And he didn’t have to lift a finger. Pretty easy.

I’m pleased I was able to get an early education in what to do (and not do) in the corporate world. There have of course been many lessons since, but this was foundational for me. To know that even in a professional setting, people will shoot down a good idea if they have a vested interest in the alternative. Maybe to save face. Perhaps because the alternative was their idea. Possibly because they don’t understand but don’t have the self confidence to acknowledge that publicly.

For those of you reading this and who have spent time living in business, little of this will be news. Corporate politics is an ancient subject. From an objective perspective, I can dispassionately observe what went on and tell myself that’s how the world works. But when it happened to me, it was personal and it made me angry. When my boss let me walk the tightrope to satisfy his ego, I felt like, to use a contemporary term, a useful idiot. In this case it worked out, but it easily could have gone the other way.

In all of it, the absolute refusal to discuss the options was the worst. Why not at least talk about it? If those department managers truly believed that employee safety was paramount, why couldn’t we discuss how much they were willing to compromise when it impacted their budget? If the professional safety community was wedded to the way they had always done things, wouldn’t it make sense to describe why the status quo was better? Is it hypocrisy? Fear? Maybe it’s just easier to remain stoic and nod knowingly when you can’t actually support your position? But telling someone they are stupid doesn’t make you right.

During the years I was in senior management positions, I had a couple of people close to me that I asked to do something very difficult yet critically important. The conversation went something like this. “Out of every 100 ideas I have, one will be brilliant and the other 99 will be crap. Your job is to tell me which is which.” It’s hard to tell the boss, or a senior colleague, or your spouse or anyone in a position of power that their latest thought should be tossed out like yesterday’s fish. But it’s necessary. You need to take on the boss when their ideas will cause harm. Encourage or even demand debate. A lot of damage can be done when someone chases a dream you know will end in a train wreck. If you let a bad idea pass by unchallenged, bad things will happen. No one wants to be a useful idiot, but it sure is easy to find yourself there.

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