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“Stone balancing with pebble tower on the Ventura rocky beach” by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Bulldozer Brain vs. Rabbit Brain in Meetings

This topic has been dangling in my bulldozer brain for a long time but I couldn’t find a good way to articulate it until one of my colleagues at Medium recently shared his experience with his son:

My son has what you might call a bulldozer brain as opposed to a rabbit brain. These are both above average brain types, but one is good for plowing through hard problems and one good for thinking fast on your feet.

We are all different — we have different experiences, knowledge, perspectives, and even ways of processing information and thinking. These differences reflect in one activity we all spend a significant amount of time in — meetings.

The awareness of the difference and co-existence of bulldozer brains and rabbit brains is critical to making meetings effective and inclusive.

Meetings are often fast-paced environments. You hear a whole lot of new information, have very limited time to think, but need to respond fast, with all good intents: to get your thoughts across, to answer a hard question, to make an important decision, or maybe just to feel good about contributing something on the table. As you may have realized already, meetings are by definition an environment for rabbit brainers to shine.

I seriously admire folks who can talk the talk in meetings and help everyone move forward. I usually don’t talk a lot in meetings — I have a bulldozer brain. I also have the tendency of self-deprecating inherited from my Asian cultural background. I don’t want to speak and waste others’ time until I’m sure I thought it through and have something valuable to add.

Unconsciously, one tends to think people who talk more in meetings are more intellect, more capable at their jobs and contribute more to the organization. Mistakenly, one also tends to think people who are quiet in meetings the other way around. These are just stereotypes once you realize the difference between a bulldozer brain and a rabbit brain.

Meetings that expect and encourage everyone to think on their feet and talk as much as possible are stressful, less effective, less inclusive, and sometimes can even be toxic. In those meetings, we will not be able to hear the valuable thoughts from quiet folks. They may feel being left out, not valued and become less engaged. Under pressure and flawed expectations, people may pay too much attention to what they want to say next instead of listening and digesting other people’s thoughts.

There are countless articles on the Internet teaching people how to speak up more in meetings. A few of them are not complete bullshit.

What if we think about it the other way around? Instead of focusing on individuals who tend to be quietly thinking in meetings, how about we try to make meetings more effective and inclusive in the first place?

First and foremost, we should recognize that people think in different ways. We have bulldozer brains, rabbit brains, and anywhere in between. This awareness on its own is fundamental for us to think about meetings differently.

Structure is critical. Before meeting, prepare an agenda and share it with the attendees in advance. Even better, share written documents that frame the meeting discussion and give people time to read through them. In meetings, make sure everyone has a chance to speak up. After meetings, shares notes and encourage follow-ups.

I love our meeting structure at Medium, which reflects our inclusive culture. The check-in and tension rounds are specifically designed to give everyone an opportunity to speak up. Participating in check-in rounds makes it easier to speak up later in the meeting. I recently learned from a post about check-in arounds that “pre-meeting talk” is actually a psychologic research topic. Academic literature suggested that pre-meeting talk is a strong indicator of meeting effectiveness.

Pay extra attention to folks who are quiet. Are they in deep thinking? Do they need a few more seconds? Do they have enough context? Do they show any signs that they want to speak up but couldn’t find an opportunity to start talking? Call them out if they are comfortable being called out.

From time to time, we can collaboratively pause for a few seconds for everyone to take some time to think and an opportunity for everyone to jump into the discussion. Taking a pause is especially important before we switch topics because once the topic is switched, it pretty much cuts off the opportunities for bulldozer brains to express anything.

Follow-up with people after meetings. Give them more opportunities to share their perspectives outside of meetings, either in person or in writing. Show them that you want to listen to them and value their thoughts. It will encourage them to speak up more in the future.

At Medium, we have an internal version of the site called Hatch. It is for everyone in the company to share their thoughts no matter if they are slow or fast thinkers in meetings. It became a unique part of Medium’s culture.

This post may sound like I’m arguing for my own benefit, but I really think there are many people like me who are not good at thinking on their feet. Making meetings effective and inclusive is very important. It is not easy; it requires a collaborative effort; and it may seem to slow us down at first. But trust me, once it is done well, it greatly benefits everyone and the whole team. We can get much more out of the meetings.

Another meeting-like scenario where it’s important to be aware of bulldozer brains vs. rabbit brains is job interviews, especially technical interviews. For example, many great candidates may not perform “well” in an hour long coding interview simply because they are not used to think in that type of settings.

If you have other ideas to make meetings more inclusive for bulldozer brainers, I would love to hear them!

Written by

Chief Architect @Medium. Serving Engineers. Teaching Machines. The ultimate goal of tech is to help us live better. Built @PatternInsight PhD @IllinoisCS UCSD

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