group of young business professionals having a brainstorming meeting.

Boost Your Brainstorming Power by Sharing an Embarrassing Secret

June 18, 2018

Learn why getting awkward and vulnerable can help your team be more creative.

What’s the best warm-up to kick off a productive brainstorming session? A recent Harvard Business Review article “Research: For Better Brainstorming, Tell an Embarrassing Story” reveals a trick to generating more ideas with your compatriots at work. (A warning: depending on your temperament, you may find yourself blushing uncontrollably when you read it.)

It appears that telling an embarrassing story before brainstorming with colleagues results in more ideas, and ones that are especially creative. How do we know? Researchers Leigh Thompson, Elizabeth Ruth Wilson and Brian Lucas considered whether it is possible to prime people in advance for better brainstorming sessions. In their first experiment, they asked a set of participants to describe a recent time they felt embarrassed; a second group was asked to describe a time when they felt proud. Participants were then asked to spend 10 minutes coming up with unexpected uses for a paper clip.

Subjects’ output was scored for fluency (the number of ideas they generated) and flexibility (the variation in the ideas they generated). The subjects who told embarrassing stories easily beat their counterparts, scoring 7.4 for fluency and 5.5 for flexibility, while the pride group got 5.8 and 4.6, respectively.

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The researchers proceeded to conduct a second study in which they investigated how the same dynamic would look in a group, suspecting that the effects would be greater in a group setting. Ninety-three managers were assigned to three-person teams. Half told embarrassing stories about themselves, and the other half talked about a time when they felt proud.

The teams told to embarrass themselves were initially taken off-guard, but once a few brave souls got the ball rolling they were observed “uproariously” laughing and having fun. Contrastingly, the teams told to boast had no trouble starting their conversations, but “there was little laughter and only a few polite head nods.”

After the results were tallied, the embarrassment story-telling teams had 26% more ideas across 15% more use categories than those in the pride group.

The moral of the story? Try putting yourself on the line and tell a self-deprecating story next time you’re in a brainstorming session. You may find the entire group benefits from your bravery.

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YW Staff love to collaborate and contribute to the magazine. The editorial team at Your Workplace are always on the lookout for work-related trends and entertaining tidbits to share with our community.

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