Surprises at Work

Posted on February 25, 2014

COMMSTORMI once had a boss who loved to sabotage meetings.  It wasn’t a question of him not liking his staff or even disliking meetings.  It was more that he didn’t want people to enter into discussions with their minds already made up. His theory was that if we all started from the same point, with the same information, we would produce honest and open responses. So, he habitually called meetings without explanation or gave only the vaguest indication of what he had on his mind.

While this concept might have worked in theory, it was a bit of a bust in practice.  I remember feeling completely lost in meetings, staring across the boardroom table at my colleagues who were equally lost while our boss discussed his newest idea.  Now, I’m all for hearing new ideas, but he wanted a decision about what we thought of his idea right then and there. What we discussed was his idea, his research on the idea, his perspective, his contemplation and of course, his bias. It didn’t go well. Not because he wasn’t smart, but because there was no opportunity for the rest of us to research, test or think about the idea as he had.

No matter what genius you call your own, if you really want your ideas to be given a fair hearing, you have to assume people need time to consider and test that idea. No matter your ailment, you probably wouldn’t take medication based on even the best scientist’s suggestion without first knowing some independent testing had been done.  So why would you accept an untested idea any quicker?

So what did we do as a group when my boss presented his surprise idea? We reacted on instinct, impulse and prior bias.  Instead of having an open debate, we ended up arguing over our own biases, perspectives and ideas. Fact had little to do with the discussion. Rather than build on an idea collectively based on our individual expertise, we became little more than the sum of our independent parts.  For those of you who have been taken by surprise at work by unexpected propositions, meetings or changes, you won’t be surprised to know that our meetings frequently ended in tears, anger or frustration – not exactly an ideal or productive working experience. Certainly not the honest and open response my boss had hoped for.

Lessons Learned:

  • No one likes surprises at work.
  • Whether you’re preparing for internal or external meetings, providing fair warning in the form of a briefing note or clear agenda is central to success.
  • Give participants the opportunity to bring their best thoughts and research to the table and your meeting will prove more fruitful, effective and productive.
  • Taking people by surprise with ideas means that, rather than putting ideas to the test before implementation, at best all you’ll get is the sum of your own parts and some disgruntled colleagues.
  • Even if you’re the best brain on the planet, synergy will always improve on good ideas, not to mention the acceptance of them.