Taboo Words and Terrific Words

by Bill Lampton, Ph.D.

Ever presented a fantastic idea to your boss, just to have it shot down before you hardly finish explaining it? Here's how you can respond and keep your idea alive.

You have had it happen, I’m sure, possibly several times. You had an idea that seemed perfectly suited for your organization, because job functions would become more manageable, customers would respond favorably, your brand recognition would increase, or profits would rise immediately. Full of enthusiasm, you went to your supervisor to get her endorsement and help. You offered your suggestion with clarity and conviction. The supervisor nodded politely, then responded with a Taboo Word or phrase--at least a word or phrase that should be taboo, because of the resulting impact on creativity and innovation.

Here are examples of Taboo Words, along with responses you can make, rather than passively accepting the boss’s decline:

That's not in our budget. Your reply: “Yes, I’m aware of that. We set the budget three months before I thought about this new direction. However, during the five years I have been working here, I have noticed that we have the flexibility to amend the budget during the fiscal year when the organization will benefit. In fact, didn’t we establish a contingency fund for that purpose? So will you endorse a budget amendment request, and we can implement this new direction without delay?”

We have never done it that way before.  Your reply: “No, we haven’t, and my conversations with our group indicate that we have suffered from low morale as a result. Our current policy, requiring that an employee must perform all of his or her work in the office, implies that we don’t trust our people when they are out of sight. So if we allow our employees to establish a “virtual office” at home, and work there three days a week, they will act like the professionals they are by remaining productive. They’ll feel better about our company, too. My prediction: Every one of them will become more productive.”

We tried that five years ago--didn't work. Your reply: “Yes, I’m aware of that. Yet we are a very different organization now. Our work force has gained sophistication through the changes in computer software. Our sales team has expanded. The CEO who came in a year ago has special talent to help us accomplish what I have outlined. Sure, there were good reasons why the plan didn’t work in 1998—and there are good reasons why it will work well now.”



Sounds too risky. Your reply: “I can understand your concern. However, didn’t some of our board members think we were being too risky when we acquired two new companies five years ago? Remember how risky we thought it was when we switched to that contact management system? Our organization has stayed at the top of our industry because we have taken risks—not stupid gambles, but intelligent risks that promised a good return.”

The CEO wouldn't like that approach. Your reply: “You know, one of the things I have noticed about John is that he is receptive to entrepreneurial ideas. Remember when you and I recommended outsourcing our cafeteria food services? We didn’t think he would go for it, yet he did. So I propose that we let him decide for himself whether this idea suits him, instead of merely assuming it won’t. Will you schedule an appointment with him to discuss the plan?”

The time isn't right--maybe next year. Your reply: “If you will look at these figures I have prepared, you will see that the first year’s savings to the company will come to at least half a million dollars. Do we really want to wait a year to miss that much budget relief? Wouldn’t waiting cost us that much money?”

Where did you get a wild idea like that? Your reply: “Well, this isn’t something I thought up an hour ago, during my drive to work. I have had input from several sources. First, our trade journals are pointing to a trend in this direction. Here are copies of two related articles, written by industry authorities you respect. Second, I have talked with our managers in every division. Third, I bounced the idea around with the consultant we have on retainer. I wouldn’t have come to you without that preparation.”

Don’t those Taboo Words sound all too familiar? You could add others to the list (and your response):

“What makes you think that would work?” (You have your reasons ready.) “Wouldn’t fit our corporate culture.” (You illustrate that it does.) “We’ve got enough irons in the fire already. Can’t add anything else.” (You explain that your idea brings relief to overburdened workers.)

So when you encounter Taboo Words, here is the antidote: Anticipate objections, and state your rebuttal promptly, confidently, and with substantive information.

On the other side of the desk, those of us in supervisory positions should recognize how severely Taboo Words discourage our people, killing their initiative. Although we continue to expect, and ask for, documentation for entrepreneurial ideas, we may want to re-examine some of the words and phrases we’re accustomed to using.

Stated more positively, try these Terrific Words the next time someone says, “I’ve got an idea to share with you”:

Sounds good. Bring me a written summary later today. This response encourages the employee, and prompts her to organize her thoughts in writing. When she returns, you will set aside a few minutes to review the proposal with her.

Good idea. Will you explain it at tomorrow's staff meeting?  Not only are you calling for more action, you are authorizing the entrepreneur to make his case among his peers.

Interesting suggestion. Are others doing this? Now you’ll get a larger perspective, assuming the employee has done his homework.

Maybe so. What's the first step for getting started? You are implying—correctly so—that even the greatest ideas require a thorough game plan. Equally important, you show you are willing to hear his plan.

Let me ask you a few questions. Here, too, you sound open and fair. You won’t say yes or no until you know more.

That's pretty creative. Three short, powerful words that applaud the employee’s assertiveness.

When you become known as a manager who welcomes fresh approaches—by avoiding Taboo Words and championing Terrific Words—you will benefit tremendously, and so will your organization.

Bill Lampton, Ph.D., Communication Consultant, Speech Coach, and Video Trainer, "Helping You Finish in First Place." Visit his Web site, Championship Communication. Call Dr. Lampton: 678-316-4300

 
  

 
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