360° Answers: When a Colleague Won’t Contribute Ideas

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

Recently, a new colleague has joined my team. My boss has instructed us that we have to work very closely together as a team to deliver on goals, but whenever there is a brainstorming session on she never fails to say, “I don’t know,” and I end up being the one coming up with all the ideas. I tried bringing this up with my boss, and she said I’ll have to iron this matter out with my new colleague. Is there is a way of politely telling my new colleague that she can’t always give an “I don’t know” answer and needs to pitch in and do her part?

Answer from Alexandra Levit:

It could very well be that as the new kid on the block, your colleague is insecure about her ideas and doesn’t feel comfortable sharing them in a brainstorming scenario.  I would take her aside and talk to her about it.  Tell her that all ideas are good ones, and that a brainstorm is the time to throw out anything and everything.  Mention that you feel like you are monopolizing the session and that you think it’s important for the company/project to benefit from her share of input – reiterating your boss’ mandate that the two of you work together closely.

Listen to what she says to say in response.  If the situation doesn’t get any better after you’ve had this conversation, maybe she feels a bit paralyzed by the brainstorm format.  Suggest that she contribute her ideas in writing instead, and see if that solves your problem.  I would not re-approach your manager unless you are forced to carry a much heavier load over a long period of time as this type of complaint has the potential to make you look worse than her.  It’s in your best interest to everything you can to do motivate her without outside intervention, and hey, this is great practice for your own management career when you’ll inevitably have to deal with an under-performing employee.

Answer from Alison Green:

Try being more direct about what you want from her. Say, “We need to come up with ideas about how to approach this, so why don’t we each brainstorm on our own and come back with two ideas?”   Or even, “I’m all out of ideas. Can you cover this one?” Also, since some people think better when they have the chance to go away and work it out in their own head, you might also try asking, “Is there a different way you’d prefer to do this? We don’t have to brainstorm on the spot if you’d rather take some time to think.”

But all that said, some people just aren’t idea people. They might be good at executing once someone else comes up with an idea, but they’re never going to be idea generators themselves. If you’re the coworker of one of these people, that can be frustrating – or it can potentially be an opportunity for you to get some credit. If your coworker doesn’t have ideas and you do, guess what? Your ideas are going to win by default. And you’re perfectly entitled to take the credit for them. That doesn’t mean announcing to your boss, “Jane hasn’t thought of a single thing all year – this has all been mine, mine, mine!”  But there’s no reason you can’t say “I thought of X – what do you think?” or “I think Y would be great for these reasons.” They’re your ideas – make sure you get credit.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese:

I think this conversation should begin with a glass of wine — or at least a cup of coffee.

You and the new colleague need to get out of the office for some time together, just to learn to communicate one-on-one.  Ask her some standard questions about her hobbies or work goals, and then really listen to what she has to say. Let her talk about herself as much as possible, which will help her feel more positive toward you and help establish trust.

Once you’ve established some rapport outside the office, then it’s time to meet regularly before those brainstorming sessions. Tell her you’d like for the team to really make a good impression, and that means doing a little strategizing beforehand. In these sessions, you can play the role of the boss, asking her for ideas. Let her practice her answers out loud, honing them until she speaks with confidence. Discuss what issues are likely to come up, and what homework the team might need to do to be prepared.

Keep in mind that your ability to handle this issue may be a test by the boss. If you can learn to communicate, strategize and build a strong team, then there may be better things in your future. If not, the boss may believe that you’re incapable of handling challenges.

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith:

I’ve worked with someone like this and at the time, it was incredibly frustrating. We were supposed to collaborators and peers; we were equally responsible and we presented our work as team. But in our brainstorming sessions, I found that I was doing all the planning, talking, idea generating, and strategizing while my so-called partner merely agreed and recorded the information as if she were my assistant.

After some time had passed, I came to realize that big-picture thinking (which drives our creativity and brainstorming processes) was not her strength and that’s OK. Get to the root of the issue; get to know her and find out why she is not contributing. If it’s a case of missing capability, unless the only work that you and your colleague do is come up with ideas, perhaps it can be acceptable that you come up with ideas and set the strategy while she contributes in a different manner (for example, detail-oriented people are very consistent, do well with routine work day after day, and have an exceptional ability to catch small errors and point out oversights).

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • http://cfcl.com/vlb Vicki

    As several of the responders here have implied, but not said in so many words, “collaboration” can mean a lot of things. It doesn’t need to mean “we all toss out N ideas at a brainstorming session”. It may mean that one person takes the notes. Or some people think about things and come back later with additional ideas. Or that some people are the “Idea” people and others are the “make it happen” people.

    This woman may be shy. She may not have enough experience yet to think her ideas are any good. She may not think well “off the cuff”.

    If speaking up in a brainstorming session isn’t a strength, stop trying to “fix” that. Instead, do something like Anita suggests: talk to her. Find out what her strengths _are_. Then find ways to let her play to her strengths and collaborate her way, even if it’s not your way. (That’s how collaboration is supposed to work.)

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