I was giving a speech to the top 400 leaders at a hospital last week. In the Q&A period, I received many great questions, including: “how do I say no to a good idea brought to me by a team member?” You can skip right to the infographic at the bottom or read the full post for more detailed instructions.

As the leader asked the question, he added an example that made it clear how uncomfortable he was with the need to reject good ideas: “Fred, that’s a great idea, but we can’t do it.”

I agree with him that’s it’s a difficult situation and you have to be very deliberate to answer optimally. Here’s the thought process you can use.

I don’t like big buts

Let’s start with the elephant in his sentence: “Fred, that’s a great idea but we can’t do it.” The word “but” causes all sorts of troubles and is almost always a poor choice. This sentence starts with “great idea” and then “but” says “actually, it’s not a great idea, I just didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

“But” is not an option. You have two other options. First, if the idea really was a good idea, you say “Fred, that’s a great idea.” Period. Then you can go on to share the mitigating factors that might mean you can’t implement it (see below).

Alternatively, if it’s not a good idea, you need to say so. “Fred, I agree that our meal options in the paediatrics ward aren’t great. Unfortunately, your idea of buying Happy Meals for all the patients doesn’t meet our nutrition guidelines.”

Was the bad idea in service of a noble cause?

This post is supposed to be about good ideas, but I can’t help giving you a little more direction on the bad idea side of the equation. If you hear a bad idea with a good heart, there’s an opportunity to reinforce the person’s goal without endorsing their idea.

In this example, try “While Happy Meals aren’t going to work, where were you coming from? What were you trying to accomplish?” You might hear “Our patients aren’t getting sufficient nutrition because the food looks so unappetizing that they won’t try it. I just want to make it more fun to eat!” Then you can explore other, more practical ways of making the meals more fun.

Is it doable?

Ok, back to the good idea scenario. Once you have decided that it’s a good idea, you need to determine whether it can be implemented. Some great ideas just won’t work. If the idea is great in theory but not practical, say so: “I would really love to have individualized meal plans for every patient on the ward, unfortunately, we don’t have sufficient food service employees to do that.”

If, on the other hand, the idea is workable, be concrete about what you like. “I love the idea of planning the menu around the rainbow. A variety of colors would make the food more appealing and also more nutritious.”

Is now the right time?

Even the best ideas can come at the wrong time. If the idea is good but the timing is bad, share the competing priorities and talk about when the idea might have a better chance of being implemented. “Fred, I love your ‘eat the rainbow’ idea. At the moment, we’re in the midst of changing suppliers for our fresh produce. As soon as we have a new supplier in place, let’s meet with the dietician and the food service director and build the plan.”

Saying “no” to a good idea isn’t fun. It is, unfortunately, a common requirement of a team leader. Be authentic and concrete in your response and tailor it depending on the value of the objective; the effectiveness of the idea; and the timing relative to other priorities.

You can use this handy dandy infographic to help you respond to ideas recommended by your team members.

Further Reading

Enough is Enough! – Tips and Tools for Saying NO

Know When and How to Say ‘No’

When to say Yes Staying in your Sweet Spot

4 Responses to Infographic-How to say no to a good idea

  1. Sharon

    Liane I love posts with info graphics as they make important points easier to share but this one seems a bit too simplistic. The leaders I work with struggle with saying no to a good idea that cannot be done because it is not a priory for senior management – where priorities shift and seem to be more politically based. What if a leader knows it is a good idea that could benefit your customer but because it doesn’t add to the prestige of your direct superior it won’t get funded?

    • Hi Sharon, I’m a bit dismayed by the cynical tone of your comment. The pressures on senior management to make the right choices with scarce resources are very real and seldom is it as simple as leaders wanting to increase their prestige. So…here’s my best answer to your comment. 1. It’s the role of the manager to understand and influence the priorities of those above them. If your colleague really has an idea that would benefit the customer, the manager needs to go to bat for that idea. 2. If during that process, the manager learns that there are other priorities, then it is covered by the infographic (good idea, not a priority right now). 3. Even if the manager learns that there is an unpalatable reason for the idea to be turned down, it’s not appropriate to criticize those above–that’s just demoralizing for everyone. Simply restate the reason given from above. You’ve given me an idea for a future blog–thanks!!

    • Hi Tiina…love you too. You make a good point. Let me tell you what I was trying to achieve. The idea is to separate the feedback into two separate ideas (in this case into two sentences). One sentence is about the quality of the idea. The other sentence is about whether it can be implemented or not. Let the first point land, with weight. “I think that’s a cool idea.” Then help the person understand the context or the mitigating factors. Essentially, it’s parsing out the different scenarios from the infographic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *