Executive Careers Blog

Why They Don't Tell You Their Ideas


"This is the dumbest idea I ever heard, and it doesn't belong on CBS ," said C.E.O., Leslie Moonves.

The idea was for a new show, "Survivor." Moonves eventually aired the show and made a fortune. And, to his credit, he's the first to admit his initial reaction.


How do you greet ideas?

Be careful, if you want to survive.

You may be tempted to mask what you really think.

If everyone at a meeting does that, you get "groupthink," a disaster when bad ideas aren't stopped.

Then there's the opposite approach.

"I have a bad reputation at my company," one executive told me, "for speaking my mind when I hear something dumb. Any advice?" he asked.

I suggested the "law of agreement," which comes from improvisational theatre. If you're on stage and someone tosses out an idea, you welcome it.

I recently took an improv class, and the teacher told me to play a senile, 95-year old man. "You've got to be kidding," I thought. I see myself closer to a 30-year old neuroscientist.

But, after the scene, the teacher said, "I have no trouble believing you have severe dementia."

(I told my wife about this later. She just nodded.)

The law of agreement, applied to work, means to welcome an idea by saying something positive.

Then, you state your concerns.

Suppose you're a Wal-mart executive, and one of your staff suggests a radical, new approach to customer service:

"Let's replace all the greeters with homicide detectives. Instead of saying 'hello' to customers—we'll frisk 'em."

You run this idea through your mind. How would that work, exactly?

Homicide detective to customer: Ever been to our store before?
Customer: No.
Detective: What about November 2, 2009 between 7-8 pm?
Customer: I don't think so.
Detective: Really? Up against the wall, buddy.

Hmm, not very promising. Ok, how will you react to this idea?

Bad (brutal honesty): "That's idiotic. You're an idiot."

Worse (lie): "Great idea! Wish I'd thought of it."

Better (law of agreement): "On the plus side, we definitely need to beef up store security. I also think we'd get some interesting publicity.

"One concern," you continue, "is with our customers. There's a chance that none of them will ever, willingly, return."

Tip: You can greet an idea the way you would a person—with respect. And you can disagree without being disagreeable.

Try this: "Here's what I like about your idea. Here's what concerns me."

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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