After a brainstorming session with the rest of our marketing team, my new boss told me, “With your background, I had assumed you were a creative person. But l guess I was wrong.” My cheeks burned. I had been performing, publishing, painting, getting paid, and winning awards for that s--tuff. But the few ideas I’d had in that meeting hadn’t seemed good enough to share.
Since leaving that job, I’ve read a lot and thought a lot about how to bring out people’s great ideas. And I’ve been practicing for a decade with my students at Yale School of Management. The most practical insight I’ve gained is the importance of behavioral introversion.
The key behavior distinguishing introverts from extroverts is that introverts think before they speak, while extroverts figure out what they think by talking. Unlike traits, behaviors depend on context. At the dinner table, you don’t censor yourself, you just talk. You’re a behavioral extrovert. In a high-stakes meeting, you take a moment to reflect so you won’t blurt out something dumb. You’re a behavioral introvert.
When you feel comfortable, or entitled to speak, your behavior shifts toward the extroverted end of your range. Your words flow more quickly and easily. When you feel out of place, or lower status, you shift toward the introversion end of your range. The behavioral introversion shift happens when you’re conversing in a language that’s not your native tongue, too, since you have to think a little bit before you speak.
What this means is that in most work meetings, some people will be quicker than others to share their thoughts. It also means those ideas are dumber. Yes. Because they didn’t have to pass quality control, on average, those ideas will be worse. And if conversations get dominated by whoever speaks first--as they often are--your group is missing out on a lot of great ideas.
As leaders, it’s our job to give introverts time and bandwidth to process their ideas before they have to speak. It’s also our job to prevent extroverts from jumping in and taking up all the airtime with their not-even-half-baked ideas.
Practices to put into practice
- Ask people to prepare in advance and bring some ideas to the meeting
- In a meeting, ask people to write down ideas for a minute or two before everyone shares
- In a large group, do a “pair share” before the group discussion. (This also makes extroverts less eager to jump in, since they’ve spoken their mind.)
- Use “warm calls,” giving people a heads up before you put them on the spot
About the gatekeeper--if you want people to be creative, you need to help them get past it. Numerous experiments have found that for creative ideas, if you want quality, you should aim first for quantity. Many brainstorms have a “no bad ideas” rule forbidding critiques. That’s useful. But what I find even more useful is a “bad ideas rule” rule. Ask for bad ideas. It’s an aikido move that overthrows the gatekeeper. And by dissipating shame and dialing up the fun, you’re making it easier for the behavioral introverts to share their ideas--which really aren’t so bad.
If you put any of these practices into practice, I’d love to hear about it!