I first realised I was an idea bully in my mid-twenties. Maybe I was sitting at a boardroom table, maybe I was on a Skype for Business call…either way, I was pitching an idea I was exceptionally invested in. I was certain I knew what was best and that was that. It didn’t matter that the team I was presenting to had at least 15 years industry seniority, I was certain my idea was the right one and I was just going to do my best to get them to agree with me. I responded to every single objection with a smile in my voice and a firm stance. I bullied them into compliance. Later on, my manager sat me down and gave me the feedback that, while it was appreciated I had conviction in my ideas, I needed to practice more active listening.
You see, like a lot of others, I cut my teeth on the retail shop floor where we are taught the “broken record” technique of handling objections and then reinforced this with a few years of outbound sales management experience. Find a million different ways to say it, but do not bend. Call that customer until they take your call, find other channels to reach them, think outside the box but do not give up!
This technique of relentless pursuit is the reason why people screen their phone calls. It’s why we have to take things offline to ensure we don’t run over time. It’s how some of the most successful sales people I know have become successful. It’s also tiresome and time for change.
Do you think you might have an idea bully in your life? Chances are you do and here are five ways to help you spot (or self-identify as) a potential idea bully.
1. They have a way of paraphrasing your idea to make it fit rather than changing their idea
2. They may struggle with active listening
3. They are persistent to the point of wearing you down
4. They consistently hand-pick the same people to work on projects because “we work so well together”
5. They disengage when their idea is not selected
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable being called a bully. They may prefer to consider themselves strong willed, driven, a creative problem solver, an out of the box thinker, a collaboration leader or just plain ol’ opinionated. What’s most important is that regardless of the descriptor, understanding an idea bully is the first step to defusing them.
1. They genuinely want to contribute
Ideas can be an extremely exciting thing. Forming them, sharing them, building upon them. If you have someone on your team who is constantly pushing new (or old) ideas and interrupting the flow of your meetings, consider setting aside one meeting a month dedicated strictly to ideation and future thinking activity.
Alternatively, consider using ideation as they are great ways to brain dump but also guide contribution towards specific organizational objectives.
2. They need balance
It is a rare unicorn that can ideate, create and execute at a 100% effort consistently, if ever. Often, you will have someone with strong execution and strategic skills, but they are a bit bland on ideas. Or, you have the opposite, someone with a flair for the idea and a weaker follow-through. Both are good individual contributors, but together, they are amazing. Your role as their colleague, regardless of title, is to help them find each other. You will find that strategy is stronger and ideas are crisper. Buy-in will be higher and frustrations lower because the ideas are backed by strategy and consist of more than just one voice.
3. They need tools
Someone with strong ideation skills can seem a bit disorganized and come across as if they are flying by the seat of their pants. They may have post-it notes all over their desk or maybe it’s half-filled notebooks. They may start talking to you in a way that feels like you are jumping into a conversation you didn’t know was even happening. The best way to corral them is to provide them with places to keep all these ideas safe. Whenever possible, the use of cloud-based tools will encourage team mates to jot the idea down regardless of where they are.
4. Call them out
The word bully creates such a visceral response in most people. You might feel a bit nauseous, nervous or want backup before you drop the B word and that’s okay. What’s not okay is letting someone continue down the path of idea bullying without trying to open their eyes that their behaviour is harmful. Schedule a 1:1 meeting as soon as possible if they are a direct report. If it is a colleague, invite them for a coffee to discuss. Avoid phrases like “when you did this…” and instead try to incorporate things like “During our meeting I felt that…” The point of calling them out is not to lay blame but to explain how their actions made you feel and help open their eyes to other ways of contributing.
5. Coach them
Once it’s been pointed out that they come across as an idea bully, work with them to course correct. Maybe it’s a workshop on emotional intelligence or effective communication techniques. Maybe it’s a hand signal or code phrase in meetings when they’ve gone too far. Remember, a lot of idea bullies are accidental bullies who don’t intentionally seek to cause harm and should be open to adjusting their behaviour. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is to not abandon them. Help them understand how they can use their strengths in other ways and be there for them when they backslide.
The world needs ideas to keep moving forward. We also need strong leaders and passionate contributors. We need more voices, not less. I encourage you to step up the next time you feel that someone is being an idea bully and work with them to find a better way.