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  • Gita Matlock

The Brainstorming Crutch: Why You're Stuck in Mid-Level Management

Brainstorming with our colleagues can be a valuable tool for creating cohesion, buy-in, and for coming up with a solution that takes diverse perspectives into account. Even at home, brainstorming can be an effective way to work with our partners and families. Increasingly, we live in a society that values the contributions of each individual as a means of valuing respect, inclusion, equity, and diversity. HOORAY! You’ll get zero argument from me about the importance of this work.


While brainstorming can be a powerful means for finding collective solutions, there is a catch; it can also be a leadership crutch. If brainstorming is your habitual solution-finding mechanism, this could be the answer to your question, "Why am I not advancing professionally?"


Perhaps you don't aspire to reach upper management. Perhaps you like being an effective #2. I get it. That was the story I told myself for years.


The truth is that there is a nuance to effective brainstorming that will allow inspired solutions to unfold without relinquishing your position as a leader, regardless of your title. That nuance is "ownership." Brainstorming becomes a crutch when we don't take ownership of the ideas that we "throw out" into the room. We want to elicit feedback from our peers and colleagues, especially if we're working in a partnership, but it's as important to stand behind the ideas we put forward as it is to remain open-minded to the perspectives of others. Only in striking that balance between owning our ideas and listening to the ideas of others will we truly benefit from the process of brainstorming.


For many, brainstorming becomes a crutch because it is a way to never be wrong. By “tossing” ideas into a collective space, we can easily release attachment to them. Instead, we can pivot quickly when a counter-perspective appears better than ours. The brainstorm becomes a scapegoat for our own insecurities. Rather than finding the ideal solution from the diverse perspectives of the collective, we default to the strongest opinion in the room.


Let me be clear, this is not about leadership as a title. This is a nuance about leadership from any organizational role. You need not be the CEO to respect and take ownership of your own contributions to the collective.


What does any of this have to do with horses? Horses live in a hierarchical society. Their way of finding solutions exemplifies much of these concepts on the daily. The human eye may simply catch that the herd is arguing over who gets which flake of hay, but taken from the equine perspective, the collective conversation over resources is an excellent example of effective brainstorming. They are in an ongoing discussion about individual needs and collective health and safety. There is always a CEO leader in the herd, but every member of has a voice and participates in the daily discussions.


So, how do you determine whether you're brainstorming like a leader or using it as a crutch? Here are some hints:

  1. When you share your idea, do you add a lot of caveats, justifications, or the word "just" all over the place? Tip: be succinct in your share and then BE QUIET. Allow silence to stimulate new thinking for the group.

  2. Who do you seek eye contact with when you complete your share? Clue: That's who you think the real leader is in the room. Once you notice who you look at for validation, try breaking the habit and take a quiet breath or two instead.

  3. When a counter-point is made to yours, try being curious instead of defensive. Can you ask a follow-up question, rather than relinquishing your perspective so easily?

  4. Throughout a brainstorming session, SLOW DOWN. Slowing down is often the #1 key to good decision making. When our minds are racing, it’s generally a sign that we’re not in our full executive function and are, instead, working from a survival mode.


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