Workplace Wisdom

If Your Boss Brainstorms for All the Wrong Reasons

In my last post, I responded to a reader’s request to revisit “crazy-making boss behavior” with a review of the “Have You Gotten Any Better at That Yet?” boss. But of course there isn’t only one type of this behavior, so here’s more about the “Brainstormy” Boss, who creates a work environment that’s as changeable as the weather.

It’s Raining Ideas!

When brainstorming is used appropriately — as a technique for generating ideas — it can trigger incredible creativity as well as a feeling of joyful participation and a sense of tighter team affiliation. Brainstorming for new ideas can be fun and enlivening, opening people up and helping them make new connections between concepts, initiatives, and themselves and their colleagues. Most people like working together in a freewheeling, unguarded way to come up with new concepts and approaches.

But although brainstorming can be very effective for initial ideation, it is not suitable for planning, analysis, or decision-making.

Beware Brainstorming for Consensus-Building

In some organizations, executives use a version of brainstorming as a kind of review process — a way to generate support for an idea or project or take the temperature of the group and see who’s on board and who’s not. This kind of brainstorming frequently begins with, “Let’s go around the room and see what everyone thinks.”

And there’s often a subtext: Managers who use the “all voices on deck” approach may actually be reluctant to lead a structured planning process or to make decisions without the group’s full support. They use this pseudo brainstorming as a way to build consensus, as if the organization or the team itself is a pure-democracy.

Caution! Stormy Conditions Ahead

When everyone is directed to weigh in, it can appear that everyone has a say. But the lack of structure may enable one or two opinionated or favored participants to commandeer the entire group, and more often than not, the reality is that some opinions count more than others. This can be demoralizing for the people who realize that their votes don’t really count.

Others may suppress their true opinions if they fear office politics, don’t fully understand the situation, or feel that their positions or amount of experience don’t make them qualified to “vote.” They may withhold their input until they can figure out which opinions are socially acceptable, or even act out by behaving contrarily or hiding data.

Managers who use “brainstorming” indiscriminately are particularly frustrating to employees who have special training or expertise or who feel strongly about merit, preparedness, or thoroughness. When it’s obvious that the group leader is asking for everyone’s buy-in only because he wants the security of knowing that everyone agrees with him, brainstorming becomes a charade.

All Opinions Are Not Created Equal

Many employers stress that all jobs have equivalent moral or ethical value. Certainly that’s true, particularly if the people in the jobs show their best efforts and behave in principled ways. But not all jobs — or all opinions — have equivalent business or market value.

A better approach is to limit egalitarian “circle time” to searching for new ideas. Once ideas are being reviewed and developed, though, it can be helpful to specify that people with relevant expertise should comment about, explain, or expand on the concept under discussion, and that the rest of the group should be responsible for describing the impact on their areas of the business.

How to Handle a Brainstormy Boss

If your manager is inclined to create a “brainstormy” weather system, try asking him privately, before the meeting, what kind of input he’s seeking. Specifically, find out whether he wants to build support for his idea or to use the group as a devil’s advocate to trouble-shoot any weak parts of the ideas in question. Then you can assess how best to contribute to the discussion, or whether you want to suggest an alternative forum.

Onward and upward,

LK

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