Of the many ways to stifle creativity, one is unsurpassed in effectiveness. I saw it once at a monthly staff meeting. As we plowed through the Open Issues list, Tim had a great idea, which he offered to us. The chair's response was "What a great idea, Tim! Why don't you work that out and report next month?"
Tim learned a lesson that day: don't ever mention your great ideas, especially not in meetings.
We've all made this "mistake" — you make a suggestion, and before you can say "Not Me!" you get volunteered to implement it. You weren't really offering to take on the task — you were just offering an insight that seemed helpful. And then you got stuck with the work.
This trap comes in other varieties. Let's suppose there's an unassigned task to be executed before you can do something else you've committed to. If you mention the unassigned task, it will probably be assigned to you. And if you say nothing, when you finally do explain why your work isn't even started yet, you might be tagged with "Why didn't you mention this before now?"
The problem isn't the offering of ideas — it's the opportunistic behavior of the team lead or chair. Ideas are the "seed corn" of projects. They're the source of all future solutions and inventions. Any chair who saddles the idea-creators with execution responsibility is actually "eating the seed corn." By creating discomfort for the people who offer ideas, the chair trains everyone not to offer ideas. So although the chair solves the immediate problem of finding someone to implement the idea, that solution creates an even bigger problem for the future — a shortage of ideas.
of all future
and inventionsWhat can you do if your team lead or your boss is one of these seed-corn eaters? How can you avoid what happened to Tim?
In the basic form, you preface your idea with a clear statement that you're offering the idea only, not the execution. For example, Tim could have said, "I have an idea for whoever is willing to take this on. I'm too overloaded to do it myself, but I'm willing to explain in more detail to whoever ends up doing this, if that fits for them and if that would be helpful." This creates a contract between Tim and the team — the team gets to hear the idea, with the understanding that Tim is too overloaded to actually execute the idea.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.