At the core of all Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work is a focus on the marginalized. An underlying aspiration of most D&I initiatives is to create organizations and communities that engage members of both marginal and dominant groups. But in practice, the primary focus of D&I is to bring those on the margin more to the center. Remedies such as affirmative action and D&I recruiting and retention programs are designed to provide underrepresented people a “seat at the table” (Joshi, 2014). But as Sturm and Guinier (1996) suggest in their seminal article on affirmative action, simply providing access for those who are different to enter into the established center is not nearly ambitious enough. What if sitting at the table is not the best place to be? What if the most generative space for both marginal and dominant people to come together is actually somewhere between the margin and the center, standing in a circle, speaking together in small pods or even dancing together? And what can people in the center learn by allowing themselves to step out to the margin?
With this desire to explore the margin more deeply, my colleagues and I began to talk to weird people. “Weird” is an intentionally loaded term. We define it as that which is counternormative — different — relative to the context in which it is situated. Moreover, the word connotes an extreme degree of difference. As our preliminary inquiries revealed, weird people aren’t just interesting to be around. Rather, they frequently tend to generate aversive responses from those in the center. Teammates may have that reaction because the weird person continues to impede progress, diminish productivity and contribute to a climate that destroys, rather than creates, value. This type of weirdness is problematic and must be assessed and dealt with. But too often, this destructive weird is confused with productive, generative and life-affirming weird. This “positive weird” will be the focus as we seek to understand how to create better organizations and communities that bring out the best in both marginal and dominant members.
Lessons Learned From Positive Weirdness
In this exploratory research, we solicited ratings from managers of intact teams across multiple organizations spanning multiple industries. We asked these informants to identify individuals they would describe as significant outliers in the team or working group.
We interviewed the individuals they identified, inquiring about:
- Role and work history
- Perception of the culture of the organization and team
- Experience of work, including their most successful outcomes
We asked them about their perception of similarities and differences among their peers, and inquired about times in which they went against the grain at work. Finally, we asked them for personal stories that would help us understand “who they are as a person.” By virtue of our selection process, the people we interviewed skewed toward positive weird. All of them were described by their managers as high performers, though they were described often as individuals who were difficult to manage. Two critical themes are emerging from our interviews so far.
First, being weird is not easy. Our initial findings suggest that these people often struggle as a result of their weirdness. Prevailing norms and dominant ways of thinking continue to exert pressure on weird people to conform to conventional standards of behavior. Many of the people we interviewed pushed back on the assumption that being different is a choice. They highlighted the ways in which their very sense of who they are as individuals was deeply intertwined with the way they experienced the world. While some behaviors are clearly the product of choice, there remained this strong sense that conforming simply was not possible.
One exceptionally articulate respondent described how his style led others to undervalue his intellectual talent:
M.L.: I always come off a little bit as the C student in an A-student culture.
Despite stories of not fitting in, the weird people we interviewed were far from miserable. Some found ways to reframe their counternormative behavior to make it seem like an asset rather than a liability to their colleagues.
A second theme emerging from the interviews is that there are different drivers of weirdness. One driver is more habitual, ego-centered expression of weird. The motivation for counternormative behavior seems to be the desire to stand out from the crowd. These people act weird just to oppose the norm. It makes them feel good to be different and any behavior that feeds that feeling is fair game. Ironically, this weird can have a certain predictability to it. It’s as though the weird person is thinking, “Whatever you say or do, I’ll say or do the opposite.”
In contrast, a more mission-driven weirdness emerges for some individuals. Here, weird people enact counternormative behavior in the service of a larger team or organization goal. They are trying to achieve that goal, and they can see that following a normal path won’t get them there. Often these individuals display a certain tenacious humility. A respondent discussed the act of speaking about the “elephant in the room”:
M.L.: I think I will always say the things that nobody else wants to say …. When I’m being snarky about the organization [it’s] because I care, not because I’m making fun of it. I’m being snarky about the organization and when I am snarky, I’m gonna do something to change it. When I actually point to the elephant in the room, I don’t just point and leave. I’ll do everything to actually try to resolve that issue.
As Sturm and Guinier (1996) argue, these marginal people can potentially help reframe the status quo in ways that create more powerful and positive lives for everyone. The challenge for organization leaders is to figure out how to support weird people so that they create — not destroy — value.
Weirdness and Diversity and Inclusion
It should not be a stretch to see the parallels between the weird people in this study and members of traditionally underrepresented groups in organizations. While this research de-emphasizes social identity group diversity — the respondents are predominantly white, male and U.S.-born — their stories resemble those frequently shared by women, people of color, differently abled people, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer colleagues. Even though norms of political correctness teach us the right words to use (just as I have carefully chosen in the previous sentence), the simple truth is that people in these groups are experienced as — and may feel — just as weird as the individuals in our study.
There’s much more to learn about the weirdness factor. The question we continue to explore is why some people who stand out as weird thrive while other weird people wither. Whatever their path, people who are different can stimulate growth, foster learning and catalyze innovation. Weird people can teach those of us who struggle to stand out and be noticed how to do so more effectively.
And whenever we are tempted to succumb to the unexamined conclusion that a colleague or a peer is just too different and simply “cannot fit in here,” it is worth considering the story of this individual: He ignored even the most basic tasks of self-maintenance. He suffered from social awkwardness, was reluctant to interact with people, and tended to just walk away from a person in the middle of a conversation. He worked obsessively, to the sacrifice of absolutely everything else in his life (Arshad & Fitzgerald, 2004).
Michelangelo, historians believe, had autism before that diagnosis was known, and he may have come off as simply “weird” to his peers. The artist exemplifies a critical lesson: Weirdness can look like a problem but, in fact, it’s quite often the solution.
For Practitioners: How Leaders Can Foster Positive Weirdness
- Remember that weirdness is a powerful path toward group creativity and innovation.
- Being weird is not easy. Be empathic toward those who are different.
- Adopt a learning orientation toward weird people. What do they see that you might be missing?
- Encourage mission-driven weirdness.
- Curtail ego-driven weirdness.
- Be open to exploring the ways in which you are weird. Reflect on how you are unusual and distinctive.
- Practice expressing your own positive weirdness — it provides permission for others to bring out their weird.
This post is excerpted from the book Positive Organizing in a Global Society: Understanding and Engaging Differences for Capacity Building and Inclusion (Routledge), edited by Laura Morgan Roberts, Lynn Perry Wooten and Darden Professor Martin N. Davidson.
Arshad, M., & Fitzgerald, M. 2004. Did Michelangelo (1475–1564) Have High-Functioning Autism? Journal of Medical Biography, 12(2), 115–120.
Joshi, Y. (2014). The Trouble With Inclusion. Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, 21(2), 207–265.
Sturm, S., & Guinier, L. (1996). The Future of Affirmative Action: Reclaiming the Innovative Ideal. California Law Review, 84(4), 953.