Surprises at Work

I 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. The facts 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 a 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.
  • Despite the popularity of brainstorming sessions, they have many built in flaws that reduce their effectiveness.

0 responses to “Surprises at Work

  • Wow! Though I understand the theory of trying to avoid group think, this strategy seems doomed to fail every time. Sounds as though he wasn’t looking for a collaborative effort; more like affirmation for an idea that he’d rather not have challenged. In my experience, nothing feels more defeating than leaving a meeting in tears or being close to crying.

    • There is nothing quite a disconcerting as watching a colleague cry out of frustration (again). At one point we’d cringe when a meeting was called and wonder who was going to lose it next. What’s interesting is that I have been in much more tense work situations since and before then and yet I’ve never seen such emotionally charged responses.

  • Hi Debra,
    In my opinion, people suppose to be ready with their own idea and they can freely discuss pros and cons of the idea. When your boss suddenly called meetings without explanation and want you to accept his ideas in the spot without everyone preparing, I think chaos will came later. However it is, he is the boss, just follow and hope the blame not placed on your shoulder.

    • Chaos definitely followed. It was like watching multiple car crashes and each time I’d think, why do we keep doing this? There are so many ways to share ideas that would work better.

  • Life is full of surprises and the only thing that’s certain is that everything’s uncertain.

    Am presuming what you write about is ideas of importance and not silly things? If so, I think your boss should have presented his idea, asked you to contemplate it and arrange to have another meeting next week, two days later or whatever. By springing an idea upon other people you actually get their gut reaction, which is interesting. And then at the next meeting you could all have come up with more in-depth feedback.

    Haven’t yoy noticed that ideas that, at first seem crazy, often turn out to be the best.

    • Unfortunately Catarina, the ideas were big ones. They would be about taking the organization in a different direction or rethinking a service offering…not exactly the kinds of things you want to have a quick decision on…well at least I didn’t. 🙂

  • I can see the animosity grow from the people who were pulled from their primary work every time one of these meetings were called.

  • thetraveloguer says:
    February 25, 2014 @ 05:12 pm

    That sounds like a terrible way to hold a meeting. I would much rather have time to prepare and actually think about the subject, I would probably go blank if I was asked my opinion on something I had no idea about.

    • For some reason my boss was convinced that the meetings would be more dynamic, he was right of course, just not the way he meant. The sad thing is, he was a really nice person, just weird about meetings.

  • He was a stinker, wasn’t he. I always had some idea of what was going to be discussed at meetings, even if the subject was new material for everyone. I always felt fairly comfortable giving my opinions at the meetings. Sometimes I was told that I was wrong but it was always with explanation.

    • Glynis, the sad part is that he wasn’t a stinker, he just couldn’t see how his behaviour impacted the group. The interesting thing is that I’ve been in much more challenging situations before and since, but never such emotionally charged ones.

  • Springing ideas on people is always a risky move. I remember all too well being invited to sit on a curriculum committee only to learn the district had already spent thousands of dollars on really cheesy educational software that would be the focus the re-design in all of the classes. Why? Not because it was the best choice for the students, but because funds had been earmarked for that specific type of item. It was just one of those times when the wheels started to turn and I realized so many big decisions are made for people who work hard and get so little say in what’s going on. It was indeed an act of sabotage to spring the news on the teachers that way. My last shred of respect withered for my boss that day.

    • My experiences in another organization made me realize how transformative it could be to inform people of a problem and then see what solutions they could reach on their own. In some ways as much as I hated the way those meeting went, I think they were incredibly instructive. I now know exactly how much of a bad idea that approach is. 🙂

  • Meetings without any advance information and prep time? Good idea, wrong audience. This happens a lot in military organizations and usually results in very long meetings and very little work since most of the time in spent in meetings. This theory might work better for small groups that work together all the time and have achieved of high level of social and mental integration, but this is a terrible idea for cross-functional teams unless the organization is process-oriented in which case there should be a high level of familiarity with what’s going on since all actions and activities are process-driven.

    • What a great point Daryl. I have seen impromptu meetings happen with strong teams and you’re absolutely right, they can take the unexpected and roll with it. The trick of course is that they have to be a strong team. Even those that are familiar with each other will fray if they are not strong or if trust is low.

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) says:
    February 26, 2014 @ 06:01 am

    Wow. If this guy’s meetings so often degenerated into teeth gnashing and wailing, you would think he would rethink his approach. The fact that he apparently didn’t, makes me wonder if he didn’t/doesn’t have some type of personality disorder. I was once on the edge of an organization with a boss who behaved like that. It was not a healthy nor helpful scene.

    • Suzanne he didn’t seem to get that his style was the problem. There were times when the exchanges between him and one of my colleagues reminded me more of a dysfunctional married couple than a boss and report. I think it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

  • Holding surprise meetings is not a good way to run a team. And coming up with new ideas and suggestions without team input is also a Bad Idea. You will never get everyone’s commitment and some team members may start feeling undervalued. I like your list of lessons learned.

  • jbutler1914 says:
    February 26, 2014 @ 03:30 pm

    Surprise meetings at work sounds horrible. I can imagine how the morale was at your job.

  • This is a good lesson for dealing with people in general. My husband always needs a while to get used to new ideas and examine all the facts. We’re both happier when I refrain from springing things on him!

  • Debra — your boss sounds more than a little like a narcissist. He thought he knew it all and the meetings were just a way to show off how smart he was. Instead of being liked, which narcissists crave, he provoked just the opposite reaction. What a difficult situation for everyone who worked for him. I’m glad you started out “you once had a boss…” I’m sure you’re very happy he’s no longer in your life.

    • I’m glad I could start that way too. As much as I liked that boss, I knew that the approach was destined for failure. Sometimes as obvious as things seem in retrospect, they are are completely opaque in practice. The boss in question was actually a really nice guy, he just couldn’t see the problem he was creating…but I am happy that he is no longer in my work life. 🙂

  • I also need to time to think things over. Too much pressure to make a decision when you don’t even completely understand the presentation.

  • becc03 says:
    March 2, 2014 @ 07:53 pm

    I am not a person who can think on the spot or come up with something brilliant straight away. My brain needs time to digest and form an opinion. I would have not have done well in that environment with that boss. I would have kept quiet and watched the show – not very productive.

    • Becc most people need time to contemplate, even if they are brilliant. You will get the worst answers out of me immediately with progressively better answers emerging as time goes by.

  • Hello Debra
    your boss seems hard to understand…
    you know i have learned a lot from your post and i have decided , when i will have my course meeting next time , i will send the agenda first to the participants , to have best feedback…
    thank you for a nice share.

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