How to Respond to Ideas We Disagree With

Becoming More Approachable Series

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At one of my past roles, I witnessed a team member approach their manager with a potential solution. The manager then replied with, "Good attempt, but let's do [my idea] instead." I think the manager was trying to be nice, by saying, "Good attempt", while also falling back on pushing their idea. In other cases, I have seen managers reply with a harsher response "No, let's do [my idea] instead." These are both examples of poor responses. Often managers resort to directly telling their idea because they believe they have the best ideas and want to progress with their own idea as quickly as possible. However, if we think from the perspective of the team member, if the manager always replies by suggesting their own ideas, what would be the team member's motivation to work collaboratively?

To become more approachable and make the environment truly collaborative, we need to take the time to fully understand our team member's ideas. Once we fully understand the thoughts of the idea owner, and we still disagree with their logic, we should not share our idea or any counter proposal. Instead, we should frame the context and the logic we are using to arrive at our idea. After we have aligned with our team members on the context and the logic, they can now connect the dots to bridge towards a solution that we both agree with. If they have not arrived at an adequate solution, we should continue to supply context and surrounding logic until they do find an appropriate approach. 

The diagram above describes how we, as context framers, should respond to ideas that we disagree with. In many cases the context framer is an executive or manager, but the context framer can be any individual that has information the idea owner may be missing.

Understand Idea

As context framers, our first responsibility is to fully understand the idea. Many executives, managers, or product owners may try to extract this information by abruptly asking "Why." after hearing an idea that they disagree with. A few articles ago, we discussed the reason why this can discourage collaboration within a team. Instead, asking the idea owner to "walk through their thought process" or "explain the reasoning behind the idea" are two softer ways to understand their logic that will encourage collaboration. Beyond having them walk through their thought process, we need to demonstrate that we understand their idea fully, whether we agree with the idea or not. We can do so by paraphrasing their idea in our own words, then asking them to confirm if our understanding is correct. If our understanding is not correct, we should ask the idea owner to elaborate on which part(s) of our understanding are misaligned. 

To provide an actual example, one time an ecommerce team member, who's job is to optimize sales for a handful of key accounts, suggested that one aspect of their key performance indicators, logistics performance of their sellers (e.g., percentage of completed orders), be removed. I asked them to walk me through their thought process, and they mentioned that they could not control the logistics performance, and therefore should not be rated against the logistics performance. Although I disagreed with the idea internally, I still wanted to make sure that I fully understood the idea, so I rephrased the concept as "Logistics performance should not be considered as a key performance indicator (KPI) because we cannot effect the logistics performance. Let me know if my understanding is accurate." My team member then confirmed that my understanding was correct. At this point, we can begin thinking about explaining context. 

Explain Context

After the idea owner has confirmed that we have understood their idea completely with our rephrasing, we can progress to explaining context. Specifically, we should share context that we believe the idea owner has not considered with their original idea, but would bridge the idea towards a solution that can be more mutually agreeable. The psychology here is that when we simply give them context and the freedom to change their own idea, it becomes a shared idea. Conversely, if we gave a solution and asked them to drop their solution, egos are brought in since one person would need to be right and another person would need to be wrong. Simply explaining the context will avoid this issue altogether. 

Continuing with the example, I disagreed with the idea of removing logistics performance as a key performance indicator, but I did not mention this, nor did I propose an alternative. Instead, I explained that "To provide some more context, other team members have effected logistics performance by recommending their sellers following specific procedures and hiring adequate staff. Would it be possible to influence the sellers to improve their processes to improve logistics performance?" With this additional context, the team member acknowledged that logistics performance can be changed, though would require a targeted effort. In short, I did not need to disagree with their idea, but rather gave enough context for them to change their own viewpoint. 

Closing Remarks

When our team members present ideas to us that we disagree with, we should not respond with our idea(s), even if we believe our ideas are superior. Instead, we should first look to understand their idea and underlying logic. Next, we should explain the context that our team member may be missing in order to arrive at an optimal solution. Taking this approach will inspire the team member to continue approaching us with their ideas, because we are helping them further develop their own ideas. And when individuals own their ideas, they will find the initiative to see the ideas through. 


If you have any comments or questions, I would love to hear the feedback in the comments below or via email. If you found this piece useful, please share with individuals who might also benefit from my content.

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