Help! My boss is allergic to new ideas

By Anne Fisher, contributor


FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I really hope you have some suggestions for me, because I'm tearing my hair out. For the past year or so, a new top management team at my company has been telling us over and over again that we need to come up with lots of fresh ideas, both for becoming more efficient at what we already do and for developing new revenue streams. I and several other people in my department have brainstormed some big proposals that we're pretty sure would produce great results.

The problem is my boss. He's been here for a very long time and always has a list of reasons why what we're suggesting won't fly. His negative attitude is really bringing us down and, we believe, harming the company as well, but we hesitate to go over his head. What can we do to get our ideas heard? --Stymied

Dear Stymied: Your question is a timely one, because "lots of companies are looking for innovation now," observes Alexander Hiam, a creativity consultant whose diverse clients, including General Motors and the U.S. Coast Guard, are actively hunting for smarter ways to do things. "New ideas, and new avenues for growth, are what will get the economy moving again."

You're also not the only one butting heads with a boss who resists change. "I hear this question a lot in leadership seminars," says Haim, author of Business Innovation for Dummies (Wiley, $21.99), a step-by-step guide to putting your fresh ideas to work. "In most organizations, the roadblock is not just one boss. Many companies have a pervasive, longstanding culture of not innovating." If that's the case where you are, he adds, "recognizing that context may help you to be less discouraged."

A good first step: Adapt your style to one that's easy for your boss to handle. "A very conservative, cautious person often has real difficulty digesting new ideas. To avoid overwhelming him or making him defensive, adjust the pacing of your presentation," Hiam says. "If you're a creative person, bubbling over with lots of suggestions, instead of flooding your boss with them, outline them one at a time -- in writing, with supporting data."

If you can cast an idea as a cost-cutting measure, so much the better: "Managers at all levels are under relentless pressure to trim costs, so that is often the one kind of innovation they're willing to consider," he says.

Talkback: Does your company encourage employees' suggestions for change? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

Looking at your proposals from his point of view could help, too. "Don't forget that innovation is risky. The inescapable fact is that new approaches to old challenges often do fail, and your boss probably worries about the consequences for him if your great ideas don't produce the results you think they will," notes Hiam. "So never overpromise, and move slowly at first. Start by getting his approval to look into something new. Suggest investigating it by trying it, initially, on a small scale."

If even that proves too radical for your boss, Hiam says, you may want to rethink your reluctance to go over his head. "The odds are good that higher-ups genuinely do want innovation. So somewhere upstairs is someone who 'gets' it," he says. "If you really can't budge your boss, then your goal should be to connect with that person, who is your natural ally." If you make an appointment to meet with that senior manager and discuss your ideas, Hiam points out, "there really isn't a lot your boss can do about it. You're protected."

You can also tackle the problem indirectly, if you're more comfortable that way. Noting that many companies these days are eager to promote mentoring, Hiam says, "ask a higher-up who is enthused about innovation to be your mentor. Then bring up your problem as a question: 'How do I get fresh ideas past a skeptical boss?' " More than likely, your new mentor will ask for an example or two, and you're off to the races.

If all else fails, you can always write up your best ideas, with supporting data, and send them anonymously to someone with clout who you think will be receptive: "If that person agrees with you that your suggestion is worth a try, he or she will pass your idea to your boss. If the idea comes from above rather than below, your boss will have little choice but to give it a serious hearing."

Of course, you don't get the credit that way, but if your goal is to see your proposals put into practice, you'll have achieved it. The idea can then serve as a wedge for making further, related changes. As Hiam puts it, "Let people more powerful than you are pull your boss's strings and force him to bring your department in line with the new direction you helped create."

A little too Machiavellian for you? Get over it. "You need to protect yourself and your career," Hiam says. "Negativity is contagious. Over time, by constantly being stymied, you may be losing energy without realizing it." He suggests that you put a time limit on your willingness to stifle your creativity: "Give it, say, six months or a year. If you still haven't made any headway by then, despite your best efforts, it's time to look for another job."

Talkback: Does your company encourage employees' suggestions for change? If you've ever had a boss who squashed your ideas, what did you do about it? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page

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