The Untapped Power of the Weird

Think of weird as good. Of weird people as powerful. Of weird ideas as great.

We need to rethink our definition of diversity to include the weird — a group that is often maligned and avoided. And by weird I mean people who appear to us as different, strange and even offbeat. They just don’t fit in.

Why bother with them? Because there is power in being so different. There is a fascinating potency in certain kinds of weirdness that allows something innovative to emerge that can help businesses thrive.

Nurturing the weird is necessary to encourage these new ideas. The key for leaders is to figure out how to support weird people so that they create — not destroy — value for the company. Some of these people have stifled their offbeat creativity out of social fear, camouflaging themselves as normal because they think it’s not appropriate to be as they really are at work. They leave essential parts of themselves at the office door. I want to determine how we can structure organizations so that people can more fully reveal their talents. How do we help these people strengthen themselves? How do we create an environment so they can express different ideas instead of shutting them down?

Weirdness manifests itself in two ways. One involves people who act weird just to oppose the norm. I call that the “little w” in weird. Little w weird is all about “me.” It makes you feel good to feel different, but you’re not contributing what you could, what is really needed. These weird people often have voracious egos.

In contrast, “big W” weird people oppose the norm but not just for the sake of standing out. Rather, they are trying to see something or achieve a larger goal, and they know following a normal path won’t get you there. Often these folks are more humble than their “little w” weird brethren; they are just focused on getting a great result.

My research suggests that weird people often struggle as a result of their weirdness. Being weird is hard. I hear these stories of pain, of not fitting in a social world. But it doesn’t mean that all weird people are unhappy. I’m intrigued by what turns the struggle into positive energy and productivity.

My work has highlighted the power inherent in people who are different. In my book The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I urge leaders to hire people who embody differences that are most important to the company’s goals. Those differences include subtle ones, such as personality and thought — as well as noticeable differences, such as race, gender or culture. Instead of seeing diversity as a distracting mandate handed down from HR, I focus on how leaders can use difference to create a competitive advantage for their firms.

Researching those who are weird dovetails with my work detailing how leaders can leverage the difference in people to create value. Weirdness is an underappreciated but important ingredient in leveraging difference. We want to take from the margin to rethink the whole.

Companies are always searching for innovations, for ways to grow, and that’s why weirdness is important. Weird people could be our greatest untapped resource. I’m writing a book tentatively titled Embrace the Weird that will explore how people who don’t fit in at work can offer different, powerful ideas.

But there’s much more to learn. The critical research question I continue to explore is why some people who stand out as weird also thrive, while others whither. Whatever their path, these people who are different are the people who will help you grow. We can learn a lot from weirdness and weird people. We can learn how those of us who struggle to stand out and be noticed can do so more effectively.

Professor Davidson teaches in the Executive Education program Managing Individual and Organizational Change, which teaches business leaders to manage their own responses to change, as well as provide the context and confidence their employees need to make the most of new opportunities.

About the Faculty

Martin N. Davidson

Davidson is an expert on global leadership with an emphasis on how to manage diversity to generate superior performance — an approach he pioneered called Leveraging Difference. He wrote the book on diversity in business, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging... Learn More