I was listening to a conversation between two thirty-something professional women.  Both looked and sounded like they were nicely employed somewhere.  One woman asked the other, “Why do you think my ideas are being rejected at work?”  It was difficult to hear everything they said but the gist of it was that this woman offered frequent suggestions in their team meetings and her ideas were simply ignored or passed over.  What was more insulting to her was not even getting the courtesy of a little recognition to indicate she’d even attempted to contribute anything at all.  You know, they didn’t even say something like, “I can see why you might suggest that Alice, but that won’t work because of regulation X385.”  Or something like that.  Nope, she got nothing.  Like she wasn’t even there.

Hearing this, a number of instances of frustrating team interaction went through my mind.  Upon reflection here are some thoughts in regard to this woman’s dilemma.

There are four key ingredients to having your ideas taken seriously – power, credibility, delivery and empathy. 

There was a television ad I saw some time back.  I think it was for a package mailing service like FedEx™.  In this ad a group of employees were sitting around a table with the boss at the head of the table.  They were coming up with ideas to save money.  A less than physically impressive employee sitting in the middle of the table suggests using FedEx™ to save money on shipping and everyone ignores him.  A second or two of silence passes and then the boss speaks up.  He suggests they use FedEx™ for shipping to save money.  Everyone smiles, applauds and compliments the boss on his wisdom.  The employee protests reminding everyone that he’d just said the same thing.  And they all continue to ignore him again.  This is the example of power.  If you have decision making power, you’ll be listened to.  It’s pretty much that simple.  This is also why bad decisions get enacted sometimes.  Because the person with the power made the decision and everyone goes along. 

So I might say to our thirty-something professional woman that she may have to wait to get all the attention she’s looking for until she gets promoted.  Not too satisfying I know. 

If you’re thirty-something you may not have acquired the power you need to command other’s attention.  This is where credibility comes in.  It requires you to build a reputation for making good decisions and taking appropriate actions that are successful.  Once you’ve piled enough of these together people are more prone to listen to what you have to say; to listen to your ideas.  Also, developing a deep expertise in a particular subject, perhaps a subject that others know nothing about, will cause people to listen to you when you speak about that subject.  However, even if you’re the most knowledgeable person in the room on a subject, if others don’t know this about you, you’ll still have to prove it over time in your actions and decision making.  People are rarely rewarded for taking people at face value. 

Then there’s your delivery.  How do you express your ideas?  As much as I hate to say it, some people have a way of expressing themselves that fails to put their thoughts in the best light.  If you express your idea in a questioning tone, as if you’re asking whether this is a good idea rather than stating you believe it’s a good idea, people will have a tendency to pass over it.  After all, if it’s your idea and you’re questioning it, why should I pay any attention to it – I’ve got my own idea I’m trying to push here. 

There is also your facial expression.  For some deep prehistoric biological reason, we take people less seriously who have what I will call an “open face.”  An open face would be an expression with eyebrows at rest or slightly raised and a look of contentment or a slight smile on their lips.  When a team of people are struggling with a thorny problem they are not encouraged when they look down the table and see Miss “I haven’t got a care in the world” staring back at them.  If everyone at the table has their brows furrowed and the corners of their mouth slightly turned down, adopt a similar facial expression if it’s not natural to you.  There is a power of simpatico in matching the facial expression and body language of those around you.  They have to feel you’re one of them before they’ll want to hear what you have to say.  In addition, if you match the demeanor of the others on the team, the team will assume you “get it;” that you understand the gravity of what they’re dealing with.  If my impression of you is that you are empathetic with our plight, then I’ll have the impression that what you are about to suggest is sincerely meant to help us.  In that case I’m more likely to listen.

If for some reason you are harboring a level of distain or disrespect for the other members of your team, they will sense it.  I’m not kidding.  People will get your vibe if you’re upset with them or look down on them.  This being the case, they’re less likely to want to take your ideas.  Lastly, if you are under the impression that the work the team is doing is beneath you and you are only participating because you have to, you will communicate this lack of empathy and the results will be what you might expect.  After all, why should we be interested in what you have to say if you’re not interested in what we’re trying to deal with.

So, without being at the woman’s side for a day or two to discover any other reasons why her ideas might be rejected (like maybe they’re just bad ideas), these are the thoughts that come to mind.




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