What to do when your boss suggests a terrible idea

What do you do when your boss hands you a terrible idea?

Several years ago, I had a manager who told me, “Alex, you can’t just tell people their ideas are bad.”

My initial response was an eye roll and simple acceptance that from then on, I would just have to keep my mouth shut in our weekly leadership meetings.

Well, anyone who knows me knows that that was not a practical solution. After about two meetings of sitting in silence, I knew there must be a better way to go about it. And just to be clear, this has nothing to do with whether or not I have better ideas than the next guy – it’s about the ability to not only identify blind spots in the greatest idea ever, but also navigate the potentially sticky situation that arises when your boss wants to go full speed ahead with an idea that you are certain will fail.

If you work in any type of role that revolves around social, content or creative – and you’re good at it – you’ve probably figured out by now that a lot of people you work with, including your boss(es), don’t actually understand what you do. And that’s ok – everyone plays their role and they hired you for your expertise. The problem arises when these folks undermine your expertise by bombarding you with bad ideas and then expect you to execute them.

If you know what it’s like to try to bite your tongue while your boss, or other folks above you on the food chain, go on and on about what you know is a bad idea, then you also know that navigating situations like this can be very complicated. Do you speak up and risk pissing off your superior (or client) – or do you keep your mouth shut and accept the fact that when the bad idea fails, it will, more than likely, be on you?

Believe me, I’ve told plenty of people their ideas were bad over the years – but I reached a point when I realized that nothing about this approach would ever be effective. Despite the moment of satisfaction it may have given me (depending on whose idea it was), this kind of response was not only the opposite of effective, but it can also piss off the wrong people.

Being an effective leader, manager and producer means being able to navigate these situations in a way that doesn’t create tension or leave anyone feeling less valuable, while also protecting your team’s precious time. In the end, business is about people, regardless of the type of business you’re in. In fact, how you interact with bosses, coworkers and clients will always overshadow the actual work that you do. 

There are a few ways to handle this type of situation.

  • Tell your boss her idea sucks.

  • Tell your boss why you think, based on your expertise and data, that the idea needs some work and more thought.

  • Tell your boss there’s something there and suggest ways to make the idea better. (Basically, make the bad idea a good one and leave your boss thinking it was still her idea.)

  • Step back, get out of your boss’ way and have a solution ready for when her idea fails.

In my experience, I’ve found that using a combination of these approaches will allow you to give your two cents without risking creating tension with your boss.

So, to help you keep the peace – and remain effective – here are a few strategies you can implement when faced with a terrible greatest idea ever.

Strategies to try when your boss hands you a bad idea

Smile & Nod

When I was a social media manager several years ago, we had weekly meetings where people in leadership positions around the company would come together to discuss both department and company-wide initiatives, news, any issues, new ideas etc. And pretty much every week, every single person in that room had a great idea for social media!

Resisting the desire to immediately tell each person that their idea would never work, I smiled, nodded and took notes. Here’s why: these types of meetings are full of “great” ideas that never go anywhere – stopping them in their tracks would do nothing but discourage the creativity and innovation that has everyone in that meeting excited. Plus, there may be a gold mine buried in one of those half-baked ideas – you just haven’t dug deep enough to discover it yet. 

Continue to encourage the creativity – knowing that most of those ideas people are yelling out will almost certainly fall through the cracks. Remember, even if you know an idea won’t work, no one wants to work with a know-it-all.

Ask Questions

If your boss is involved in brainstorming meetings, she probably chimes in with her great ideas like everyone else – except she expects a bigger reaction – so very often, you can’t just smile and nod here.

You can’t give her your honest feedback – that the idea is terrible – but what you can do is ask questions. Ask for more context and more clarification about her specific idea. This will force her to think through more details and how the project would actually work. As a result, you’ll likely get her to realize that the idea isn’t as great as she thought – without ever giving your direct feedback.

Poke Holes

You thought you were in the clear – assuming your boss realized that since she had no details or context around how her idea could actually work, it was time to move on. But unfortunately, she’s still pushing.

In this case, you need to find a way to show her that the idea won’t actually work – by poking holes in it and identifying factors she hasn’t considered. At the same time, you need to do it in a professional and polite way. Regardless of how terrible the idea is, she is your boss and being rude about it will do nothing but negatively impact you.

I had a boss who once encouraged me to not pay attention to so many details, since we were “in growth mode.” “Just crank out as much content as you can, don’t get bogged down in details,” he said. Well, I was the managing a brand that offered financial advice, while he was the VP of another website owned by our parent company – which at the time had its highest pageview count on a page with a zit-popping video. So, you can imagine my first reaction – we are offering financial advice, not zit videos, so paying attention to details is absolutely crucial.

Of course, I couldn’t say that. He had good intentions – our content was performing extremely well and all he wanted to see was more of it – and more pageviews. So, what I did do was agree with the idea that we needed to continue cranking out a lot of [high-quality] content and also showed him examples of past “fluff” pieces that not only garnered a lot of negative feedback from the audience, but also performed very poorly in terms of pageviews. I then suggested resurfacing more of our great evergreen stuff, since I knew that wouldn’t require as much copy-editing (since I didn’t have the resourced I needed at the time). As a result, our numbers continued to increase, and I had the data to back up the strategies I had implemented – without ever directly responding to his well-intentioned, but careless, suggestion.

When your boss continues to push something that you know won’t work, here are a few strategies you can implement:

  • Use data based on past projects and experiences, including any relevant external data.

  • Provide positive feedback – maybe about his intention or way of thinking – followed by why you think (based on your expertise and experience) it won’t work quite like he thinks it will.

  • Spin the idea by providing a better solution to your boss’ primary goal and he’ll be satisfied thinking it was his idea in the first place.

Bottom line: find something positive in your boss’ idea, identify why it won’t work and then explain your reasoning. If you can provide a better solution at the same time, even better.

Suggest a Better Alternative

If your boss is trying to solve a problem that you’re already aware of, chances are you already have your own idea regarding what to do about it.

Just like in the previous example, it’s always a good option when you can spin your boss’ idea into something much better. Even if it’s a totally different solution, finding a way to at least roll some part of his pitch into your idea will allow you to you keep the peace and implement an effective solution.

When my VP suggested that we could push out more content simply by not paying attention to details, he was responding to my request for another writer and copy-editor. As managing editor, I was not only writing, but also doing all of the editing – on top of everything else I had on my plate. When he couldn’t give me more resources, his solution to more content was for me to spend less time editing and more time just pushing stuff out. Since I was focused more on trust and long-term sustainable growth, that wasn’t going to work. So, I provided a better alternative that would give us more content without risking our trust with the audience.

He got what he wanted, and our continued growth ultimately allowed for me to add several new members to the team.

Bottom line: I found a solution to the problem he was trying to solve with an idea that worked. Plus, I took on the responsibility of revamping the old content rather than asking again for additional resources.

Your boss is much more likely to get on board when you volunteer to do the work necessary to prove your alternative is the best solution.

Keep Your Mouth Shut

The majority of all ideas – good and bad – do seem to have one thing in common: they stem from good intentions. Typically, no one is actually trying to sabotage the brand or create more work for other people just for the fun of it. But unfortunately, there are situations when people decide to go with their gut rather than the data or feedback from those who have the relevant experience. And when it’s your boss who’s determined to move forward come hell or high water, there isn’t much you can do besides get out of the way.

Years ago, I had a boss who hired me to build and expand a brand’s digital and social presence.

One of our big annual initiatives was to implement new strategies that would allow us to reach new and younger audiences. I was heavily focused on building out our foundational strategies – those that would support our continued long-term sustainable growth. Meanwhile, my boss mentioned an idea to me that I was very skeptical about. It was expensive, required heavy lifting (for which we had no resources) and its success was based on a level of user engagement that I believed would be extremely unlikely at the time. 

I provided my feedback, including the fact that we did not have the resources necessary to make the project a success, as well as data around when and why users engage at the level this initiative would have required. Although she had asked for it, my boss wasn’t interested in my feedback and went ahead with the idea anyway. We were then locked in to an expensive contract with a user-generated video platform that didn’t even have the capabilities we would have needed to implement it – those features weren’t included in the deal. Ultimately, we discovered that the platform was terrible, it took up way too much of my team’s time and users couldn’t have been less interested.

I knew how my boss handled constructive criticism – especially from me – and so I knew that this was a time when I needed to just stand back. I gave my opinion, based on past experience with similar projects as well as data to back it up, but she wasn’t interested in it.

Unfortunately, you may face a boss who doesn’t take feedback well – or even worse, doesn’t like the idea that you have more experience in, and knowledge of, certain subject matters and responds to your feedback accordingly. While managers hire you for this exact expertise, unfortunately there are some who resent it. In these cases, if you aren’t ready to leave the job, you have to navigate the relationship very carefully.

It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the risk to keep pushing back – like if the idea will cause major problems for you, your team or the company – or if you’re better off just keeping your mouth shut. In the end, your boss is still your boss, and how you respond to her can end up causing long-term damage to the relationship. And in these cases, she is probably going to come out on top – because that’s just how the corporate world works. It isn’t fun, but learning to navigate these situations – and knowing when to speak up and when to zip it – will pay off in the long run for you. In the end, you want to do everything you can to protect your professional reputation – and if it means stepping aside sometimes, then you must develop the ability to do just that.

Be Ready to Solve the Problem When it Fails

During the months it took for my boss’ project to launch and fail, I had been building out an idea and project plan for a new initiative with the same goal – to reach new audiences. Once the dust had settled, I pitched a very well thought out project plan, utilizing resources we already had and including ways it would benefit our partners. I ultimately got the approval to move forward and not only did we blast out our original goals, but we also picked up our first digital sponsorship.

It was crucial that I waited for the right time to throw out my idea – and that when I did, I had a detailed project plan that could answer any potential questions.

In these situations, use past experiences and interactions with your boss to determine when it’s the right time to pitch your own [better] idea. If she’s a rational person, and a good manager, she’ll appreciate the initiative you took to do the initial work you did on your own and will be excited about the new opportunity.

Alex Thomas