Radiology’s Idea Men: How to Squelch and Repel Them

July 12, 2013

Memo to radiology leadership: Got an employee with some great ideas? Here’s how to quash that initiative in favor of a “yes man.”

I bore witness to a radiologist who tried reinventing himself. On the verge of retirement from work in outpatient imaging centers, he took an opportunity to join a hospital-based radiology department, with a middle-management administrative title - the sort of thing he had never done before, and for which he was brimming with eagerness and ideas.

The bloom came off the rose soon enough, as it was only a year or two before he lamented: “I have all of these great ideas, and I can’t do anything with them.”

Now, as Grand Poobah of your own imaging empire (or any other hierarchical entity), you might think that what you have established is flawless. Anybody coming to you with an idea which differs from such perfection would thus be in the wrong, and therefore unworthy of your consideration.

The problem is that your subordinates don’t always recognize themselves for the visionless peasants that they are, and somehow got the idea that their input was valuable to you. Maybe it was that day you took over and told them all, as you were practically required to by common business world practice, that you have an “open-door policy,” and invited them to come to you without hesitation. Who could know some of them would take you seriously?

You could try explaining to them that there’s a reason you have the big office and the compensation package of which they could only dream. You could explain how some people are cut out for the big time, but most are not, and only the chosen few have valuable ideas. Or at least recognize and steal them, on the rare occasion that members of the rank and file stumble across a winner.

Especially in medicine, these (often self-proclaimed) “idea men” can be hard to dissuade. They just won’t let you forget that, like you, they went through plenty of education and training, and that they had to be pretty smart people to even qualify for those years. They thus believe, when you call them your “team,” you are referring to them as if they were your equals in a baseball franchise, rather than, say, dogs pulling your sled in the Klondike.

So you can live under siege, having to pretend to listen to them every time they have their next Big Idea. Of course, you’d prefer not to waste your valuable time doing this, and that they just stay in their little cubicles and generate RVUs instead. You might want to permanently discourage them, like the guy I mentioned above. Problem is, if you’re too gentle about it, it might take years before they get the hint, and if you’re too harsh, you might just breed yourself a resentful saboteur.

What you really need is an ounce of prevention. This requires you to recognize, in advance, that you have all the answers and that you won’t be changing your mind about this. Thus resolved, you can proceed to fend off any would-be Idea Men from joining your workforce in the first place, whenever you are recruiting. They’re pretty easy to recognize, since they try very hard to advertise their ideation. Their CVs will hype the committees on which they’ve served, and they’ll go out of their way to emphasize the non-clinical roles they’ve played in previous jobs. During interviews, they might come right out and tell you, proudly: “I’m an Idea Man.” Or: “I think outside of the box.”

If you think you’ve got a winner - someone with no apparent spark of innovation, who has a nice, bland application and a personality like wallpaper - don’t pounce prematurely. You could still be dealing with an incipient problem, a sort of Idea Man-to-be, who is shy and retiring at the moment but will shed his sheep’s clothing as he gets comfortable. He might have been full of his ideas in a previous job, but squelched by his superiors there until he finally took a hike, and still a little beaten down from the experience.

To make sure, offer him some bait: Ask him things like what he thinks his best ideas were in his career thus far. If he has any real answers, you’ve unmasked him for what he is. But if he looks at the floor, has nothing to say, or mumbles some platitudes worthy of a college-admission essay, he’s your drone; grab him before your competition does.