How to call out a bad idea at work — without offending your boss or co-workers

How to call out a bad idea at work — without offending your boss or co-workers

It's hard to imagine what made Pepsi think an ad showing Kendall Jenner handing a can of pop to a police officer to help ease tensions during a protest was a good idea. But we'd be willing to wager that at least one person who saw the commercial before it aired had an inkling that it might backfire

The Pepsi ad flop wasn't even the worst PR nightmare in recent memory — cough United cough — but it was nonetheless a big flub that potentially could have been avoided if someone had spoken up during the process, and if someone in charge had listened. 

Does this resonate with you? If a colleague or manager at your company is pushing a problematic idea, or is about to make a poor choice that could make your entire team look bad, here's when and how to speak up. It'll be worth it.

When to speak up and when to button up

Not every bad idea is worth complaining about. What it really comes down to is how much harm the bad idea will have if implemented and how your work relationships might suffer from speaking out.

"If you know for sure that the idea will have an adverse impact on the company, speak up," Jacqueline Whitmore, a business etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach told Mic

This is especially true if the idea is unethical or illegal, like stealing a rival's idea or engaging in discriminatory policies. In those cases, failing to speak up might even cost you your job or reputation, if you wind up being held accountable.

However, "some things are just not worth saying or ruining relationships" over, Whitmore said, even when you know you're right. If you simply disagree with an idea — like holding 5 p.m. meetings on Fridays, for example — but there's no real harm in them, it's better not to raise a stink.

Don't just wing it

Before you say anything, make sure you're confident that the idea won't work by determining how it could affect the company in a negative way, career coach Hallie Crawford told Mic.

"Perhaps a similar company tried the same thing and it failed," she suggested. The important thing here is to be able to demonstrate that you're not just giving a casually-considered opinion — but have really thought through the issues and even have data to support your view.

It's also wise to get a sense of how others feel before you make your case.

"If your friends and colleagues agree with you, you have allies," CBS wrote. They may even help out with additional arguments and statistics. This will also give you a better sense of how your perspective will be received in a meeting where the boss might ask others what they think.

It's all in the delivery

Once you've decided to speak up, start by saying something positive about the idea: "I like the way you're trying to tap into what young people find so important," might have been a good initial response to that Pepsi commercial proposal, for example.

Next, calmly state your objections without being aggressive or adversarial. "Avoid qualifying the idea as 'stupid' or 'horrible' or making faces that show your dislike," Crawford warned. Even when an idea is truly terrible, it's crucial to be diplomatic to avoid bruising egos and unwittingly creating office enemies. 

Focus on the idea, not the person who made the suggestion, and steer clear of "you" statements like, "You don't have any experience in this area." 

You might also try raising only your biggest concern, instead of presenting a big list of reasons why it's a bad idea. Focusing on just one issue can keep you from sounding like you're tearing the person apart, advised the Muse

Ask questions before going for the jugular

If you know your boss or coworker has thin skin, no amount of being nice or presenting copious data proving them wrong is going to make them feel good about being criticized. In that case, you might try asking questions that will help them see the flaws in their idea on their thinking. 

"Do you think protesters might be upset about their causes being used to sell a soft drink?" might have been a good question to ask in the Pepsi case, for example.

Asking questions may be "enough to kill the idea altogether without you ever needing to say anything directly critical," the Muse wrote. 

Come up with a better idea

When you criticize, it's best to come back with some positive suggestions, too. "Give some alternative solutions, don't just complain," Crawford said. Ideally, you'll be able to present your new idea as building upon or spinning off of the bad suggestion.  

Make sure the suggestions you make show you've understood the purpose behind the bad idea, advised CBS. For example: "I understand you're trying to reach a younger audience with this Pepsi commercial. Here are a few different ways we could do that."

Understand the risks of making waves

"If you can't prove that your objection to the idea has a solid basis, you run the risk of sounding negative, especially if a lot of other people are excited about the idea," Crawford warned.

Disagreeing with others can also make them less likely to trust you or share ideas for fear you'll just shoot them down. So if you are going to vocal about ideas you disagree with, make sure you also support your co-workers when they present a strong suggestion. It's all about striking the right balance.

Trust yourself to know when something is a seriously bad idea and speak up when you must to spare your employer a lot of embarrassment.

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