Social Menu

Workplace Wisdom Blog

What To Do If Your Boss Brainstorms for All the Wrong Reasons

One of the kinds of leaders who can drive employees crazy is 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 experience levels don’t qualify them 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 those employees who have special training or expertise or who feel strongly about merit, preparedness, or thoroughness. When it’s obvious that group leaders are asking for everyone’s buy-in only for the security of knowing that everyone agrees with them, 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 only people with relevant expertise should comment about 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 them privately, before the meeting, what kind of input they’re seeking. Specifically, find out whether they want to build support for their ideas 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 —


Related Posts:

Want help coping with conflict?

Download your free Field Guide to help you identify and resolve interpersonal conflicts. You’ll also get Liz’s monthly Workplace Wisdom emails from which you can unsubscribe at any time.

  • Liz Kislik Associates LLC will use the information you provide to send you content, updates, and marketing via email. You can find full details about our privacy practices here. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.