Really? Your Office Culture Is Defined by "No"

what-a-mole arcade game with large black mallet

Take a moment and think about your colleagues. Which ones are the naysayers? You know — the people who you think of as “The Mallet” for their ability to smash promising ideas like a game of Whac-A-Mole. 

Of course leaders should know how and when to say “no” to ideas that do not line up with the company’s goals. But if it feels like you are working in an arcade hall or your mental cheeks are a bit red from getting smacked around, something is terribly wrong.

When “no” becomes the knee-jerk response to new ideas, it builds a culture of fear that stifles innovation. And that is a real problem at companies large and small.

Leading-edge companies recognize the danger in avoiding new things out of fear of the unfamiliar. They embrace tireless iteration and changing course when better solutions arise.

Consider Toyota, which started as a loom-making company in the 1920s. Today they sell more cars globally than anyone else. Another good example is General Electric. After significantly evolving over the last 124 years, GE is now reinventing itself as a digital powerhouse. 

Companies that act on new ideas lead the way to change — outpacing the naysayers in the process. The ones left behind slowly sink under the weight of a thousand “nos.”

If you suspect your company is averse to new ideas, here are a few corrective measures:

Share the vision
Is strategy shared with everyone — or is it only for a privileged few? Forward-thinking leaders are transparent. It’s not enough to make goals visible to the whole team. Each person needs to understand their unique value to the company and role in helping the company fulfill those goals. As a result, they’re more likely to ideate in ways that line up with the strategic vision.  

Support openness
Good ideas can come from anywhere. Encourage a culture of openness and provide a forum for anyone to contribute new ideas or improve upon existing ones. At Aha! we built an ideas portal right into our roadmapping software so that anyone — from customers to employees — can submit enhancements and new solutions, as well as vote on the ones they’d most like to see implemented. 

Stay invested
Managers with a “no” mindset are quick to poke holes without acknowledging merit. But hastily rejecting a fledgling idea helps no one — least of all the person trying to contribute to the success of the organization. When you show that you are invested, your team will not deflate when an idea is not adopted. Before rejecting an idea, ask thoughtful questions to make sure you fully understand what is being suggested and push the creator to fully vet the possibilities. 

Show kindness
You can be a decisive leader and say “no” to a weak idea without crushing someone’s spirit. Be honest and specific to help the person understand why their idea may be premature — which may help lead to a better one. If there were elements of the idea that you did like, say so! If not, explain the value framework that you are using to dismiss it. Encourage them to keep on contributing. 

Not every idea will make the cut. But innovative companies promote a culture where ideas stand a chance to thrive. 

Smart leaders do not allow fear to rule the day. They are not afraid to imagine the possibilities and ask “what if.” They are open-minded about the future, and support an ongoing stream of ideas that will help the company compete and innovate.

These are the people that I love to work with, and you likely do too. We should all put the mallet down before we smack what actually matters. 

How does your company avoid the culture of “no”?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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