The Most Important Moment in the History of Your Business

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 15, Issue No. 3b
July 15, 2016

By Dan Coughlin

The most important moment in the history of your business is when an employee comes to you with an idea on how to improve the business in some way. How you handle that moment says a lot about your current mindset and the future of the business.

How to Ruin a Generation of Ideas

Oftentimes in seminars I will say, “If you negatively and immediately shoot down another person’s idea without even considering it, you may very well never get another idea from that person.”

Recently an attendee said to me, “Dan, it’s much worse than that. If a manager shoots down another person’s idea in a very negative and dismissive way, not only is that person unlikely to ever share another idea, but neither are all the people around that person who watched his or her idea get shot down so quickly. The manager loses out on an entire generation of ideas.”

The more I thought about it, the more I saw the wisdom in that insight. When bosses act in an arrogant way as though they and their small group of direct reports are the only ones with good ideas, then employees stop bringing any ideas at all. Remember: arrogance is the enemy of sustainable success.

Understand Human Nature and Its Relationship to Idea Sharing

Inside every human being are certain desires. Here are five of them:

The Will to Choose – Many wars have been fought when people felt they were losing their capacity to make choices. The ability to choose is what brings a sense of personal dignity to people.

The Will to Relationships – Put toddlers in a room and they’ll find a way to congregate. People want to be in relationship with other people.

The Will to Pleasure – People want to experience pleasure in its many different formats. There is no lasting value in ice cream other than that it brings pleasure to people. And that makes it very popular.

The Will to Power – Humans want to have some control over their own performances and the performances of groups of people. This is what drives some CEOs of multinational firms and some volunteer presidents of PTO organizations. This was the territory of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Will to Meaning – People want a purpose in their lives. They need a reason to rally around, something that wakes them up in the morning and keeps them going all day. They want to feel that their ideas and their behaviors really matter at work, and that they are making a meaningful contribution to the good of the organization. This was the territory of Victor Frankl.

When a person offers an idea to a manager, he or she does so because it’s his or her way of trying to make a meaningful contribution to the company. The individual wants to matter. When the idea is shot down immediately in an extremely negative way, the person may feel as though his or her will to meaning has been trounced on. They may feel as though they aren’t really being allowed to make a meaningful difference in the organization and will want to move on.

The problem is not that the idea was turned down. It’s the way in which it was turned down. If the boss acts arrogant and shoots the idea down with sarcasm and rudeness and ignores any possibilities in the idea without even considering it, then the other person is likely to feel they have no purpose in being a part of that particular work group. That’s why this moment is so important.

Four Ways to Respond to a New Idea (and only one is effective)

When a person comes to you with an idea, here are four ways you can respond:

Negative and Disengaged (Barely give attention and only with negative comments. Keep looking at your smartphone while the person is talking, and say, “Sounds like a dumb idea to me.”)

Negative and Engaged (Focus on the other person with good eye contact, but only make negative comments like, “That really is a stupid idea. Why don’t you focus on doing the job we pay you to do, and stop trying to think how we can be better.”

Positive and Disengaged (Make positive comments, but don’t really pay attention. Look at your smartphone the whole time while saying, “Sounds really awesome.” Make sure that it’s clear that you didn’t hear a word the other person said.)

Positive and Engaged (Be attentive, listen with empathy, be interested, and make positive comments by saying “I really want to understand your idea. Tell me more about why you think it is such a good idea.” Show the person respect, consider the idea for a few days, and then get back to the person with whether or not you are going to support the idea, and why you feel that way. Even if you think it’s a bad idea, you can say, “First, thank you for bringing your idea to me. Please keep bringing your ideas to me in the future. Ideas are the starting point for improving our organization. I’ve considered your idea for the past couple of days. Here’s why I’m not going to support it…” Taking the time to explain your rationale demonstrates respect to the other person. It shows that you are open to considering ideas in the future, and that you have simply decided not to support this particular idea.)

You definitely do not have to say “Yes” to what you think is a bad idea. However, you do have to show respect for the person offering the idea. Otherwise he or she will likely never “bother” you with an idea again.

What about dumb ideas?

I’ve been asked this question many times at seminars: “What do you do when a person brings you a dumb idea?”

The key is to see the problem within the question. No one ever brings what he or she considers to be a dumb idea to a boss. Just because the boss thinks the idea is dumb doesn’t mean the other person feels the same way.

Even if you think the idea is dumb, it’s still extremely important that you treat the other person with respect. Say, “Right now I don’t see the value in the idea, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. Explain to me why you think this idea is so good.”

You can consider an idea to be dumb, but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that the person behind the idea is dumb.

This is the most important moment in the history of your business because you can either strengthen or ruin a relationship with someone you work with. The way you handle that moment over and over again throughout your career will greatly affect your work culture, the people who stay with your organization and the ones who leave, and the degree of innovation that will exist in your business.

What about no ideas?

If you work in an environment where no one brings ideas to you on how to improve the organization, then that’s a problem. Don’t think that no “distractions” is a good thing. There is a very good chance that someone has stomped out other people’s enthusiasm for sharing their ideas. Those employees only share ideas away from the boss. Look for ways to reignite relationships so employees feel safe to offer ideas they think are of value.


The most important moment in the history of your business is a moment that happens over and over again. Be ready to respond in an effective way the next time someone comes to you with an idea. Even if you don’t like the idea, treat the person with respect and encourage him or her to keep bringing ideas to you. Ideas drive better behaviors, better products, and better services. Success begins with an idea. Handle these moments with care so you don’t wipe out a generation of ideas.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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