Brainstorming: Engaging, or Alienating?

Being part of a brainstorming session can sometimes feel like being on a panel show; you’re forever trying to make a joke, but there’s always someone louder than you who makes the audience laugh first.

I wouldn’t describe myself as shy or particularly quiet (at all), though I’ve often found myself blending into the background during brainstorming sessions. It’s not that I don’t have ideas to contribute, or that I don’t want to be involved. I wouldn’t describe myself as an introvert, I’m not worried about sharing my views or opinions, and I don’t become nervous in group settings. So why do I find brainstorming sessions so frustrating?

There’s (often) no question to answer

If a brainstorming session isn’t structured or led very well, chaos can ensue – the loudest people in the room shouting over each other in a frenzy of flip charts and post its, while the remaining participants sigh and wait for it to be over. If you’ve gathered to discuss a project but there’s no tangible question to answer (or goal to achieve), where do you start? If what you’re discussing is too broad, there’s a good chance the ideas generated will be too.

The floor isn’t shared

Brainstorming sessions are often dominated by two or three people. They don’t mean to do it, they’re just expressing their ideas – but it can be extremely frustrating for people who don’t want to shout over their colleagues to be heard. We know that Employee Voice plays a key role in successful employee engagement, so it’s important that everyone is involved. It’s essential that everyone has a chance to share their ideas (both during and following the session), to ensure that no one feels alienated.

On reflection, the idea just doesn’t stick

In their research, Collaborative Fixation: Effects of others’ ideas on brainstorming, Nicholas W Kohn and Steven. M Smith found that brainstorming often led to collaborative fixation – meaning that ‘participants might conform to the categories of ideas suggested by other group members.’ I’m sure this is something most of us can relate to – one person suggests an idea with such enthusiasm that it’s impossible to disagree with them. What an amazing idea! Why haven’t we thought of this before?!

The problem is, the quieter members of the group might find it difficult to raise concerns, especially if everyone’s excited about an idea – though realising that you’ll need to start from scratch can also be an exhausting prospect, for everyone in the team.

It’s important that everyone is involved in these kinds of meetings – and if not, it’s even more important to find out why. Brainstorming sessions are a regular fixture in offices across the globe, and while they might help some employees to feel exhilarated, energised and engaged, they could have the opposite effect on others.

Hayley McGarvey


What’s your view on brainstorming – engaging, or alienating? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook, or continue the conversation in the comments section below.


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