TOUGH LOVE: My boss won’t listen to my ideas

Margaret Heffernan
3 min readDec 1, 2017

“I work for a guy in his thirties who always says he wants to hear my ideas. So I do a ton of work, thinking and doing research to come up with loads of suggestions. But he always ignores them and does whatever he wanted to do in the first place. Should I just stop trying to help?”

Everybody these days talks about collaboration and about level playing fields at work. The idea is that groups of people come up with more and better ideas than individuals — and often the best ideas come from people who are new, young, or working outside their expertise. So — in theory — any smart boss should want to hear from everyone.

In practice, lots of people have your experience. The boss says he (or she) wants ideas — when actually they think the only really great ideas are their own. You might call them arrogant and self-centred, and they might be. But it’s more likely that they’re just afraid, and that other peoples’ great ideas make them feel inadequate: uncreative, or just behind with their work. They fear that if they listen and accept suggestions from others it will make them look (and feel) weak. These kinds of bosses are immature and, unless they change, doomed.

Why? Because really great ideas aren’t born fully formed. They usually start off half-baked, just a gleam in the eye. It’s when you share them, add to them, refine them, shape them: that’s when they start to get better and may indeed end up great. But if you try to do all that work alone, you can never be any better than yourself.

One quick story: When the National Theatre in London was rehearsing the world premiere of Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of King George, the director and the cast were struggling with a really tricky bit of business: how to get the actor (Nigel Hawthorne) into a strait jacket without stopping the play dead in its tracks. Strait jackets are complicated (especially 18th century ones) and this one was so fiddly that putting it on took too long. They tried everything. Eventually the solution came from the most junior stage manager on the show. What had the director, Nick Hytner, done that was so brilliant? He had listened to a good idea. Better still, he had created a team where everyone did listen and where the best idea — not the loudest voice or the most senior person, but the best idea — won the day. (Thank to Ed Kemp at RADA who told me this story to illustrate just this story.) That is what real talent is: being good at knowing good ideas when you see them, wherever or whoever they come from.

So the first answer to your question is: don’t give up and don’t despair. Over time, you will find places where people like hearing your ideas, may help you develop them and who know that working together makes everybody smarter and more successful. When you find those places and those people — move towards them. And be generous. Don’t hoard your ideas; they will die of neglect. Ideas are cheap; the more you have and give away, the more you’ll get. And remember: good ideas never die. This boss didn’t want them this time? Don’t worry; you’ll use them one day.

For artists, nothing is ever wasted.

The second answer is: don’t sulk. Your boss might have great ideas you can learn from. Just because he or she is a bit defensive, maybe self-centred, even arrogant doesn’t mean they’re useless. They’re just a work in progress. Don’t stop making suggestions and don’t stop being helpful. Eventually this boss might wake up and see the creativity that’s getting wasted. Perhaps. But most important of all, if you keep thinking and giving, it’s you who will be enriched — you and the people lucky enough to work alongside you.

And if the boss never ever grows up — remember not to be that way once you are in charge.

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Margaret Heffernan

CEO of 6 businesses, her book WILFUL BLINDNESS was called a classic; her TED talks have been seen by over 12 million people. UNCHARTED is her new book.