4 Ways to Encourage the Oddballs

ways to encourage the oddballs

This post isn’t for everyone, and it’s not for every organization. I’m admitting that from the get-go.

Some folks–good folks, mind you–will read this and think it’s for the birds, and that’s fine. It really is. Some organizations don’t, can’t, and won’t embrace the idea that follows; and they probably don’t have any desire to. Again, that’s fine. Accepting or not accepting the idea doesn’t make anyone or any organization any more or any less intelligent, enlightened, or fantastic. It just means it’s not them.

But enough rambling. Here’s the advice: Encourage the oddballs.

Most organizations have at least a few folks who aren’t like every single other person in corporate America, but many organizations and leaders don’t know what to do with them. Some organizations will throw their proverbial hands up in the air in consternation, frustrated at their inability to control and precisely predict the oddball. Eventually, both they and the oddball will get so uncomfortable with each other that one or the other will call it quits.

But there’s another option. You see, often it’s those oddballs that think about things a little differently. They think of new and different ways of doing things. Sure, it may be unorthodox, and yes, maybe even a little weird; but it’s these people who are so valuable to organizations.

They might think of a product or service that no one in their right mind would have thought of. (Cliche example alert: Think Apple. They do this over and over and over again.) Or maybe they conceptualize a better way for departments to be structured and relate to each other. Their management style might be outside the norm, but somehow it’s strangely effective.

We have to remind ourselves–especially as leaders–that these humans we have the privilege of working with are amazing, unique, crazy, awesome, hard-to-figure-out things. And organizations are made up of clumps of ’em. Anyone who thinks there’s a template for that is crazy.

So what about those oddballs? Here are some tips.

1. Encourage the oddballs by creating space for them to be themselves.

I’m not saying to rearrange your entire organization around an individual, but it’s OK to allow for individuals’ differences, idiosyncrasies, and unique ways of doing what they do.

2. Encourage the oddballs by being OK with their oddness.

You know what? Normal is overrated. (More on this below.) Odd is different. Odd can be interesting. Odd makes you think. And odd reminds us that we’re all human and different. What a terrible existence it would be if we were all identical corporate cogs.

3. Encourage the oddballs by realizing that creative people aren’t what others might consider “normal.”

This makes sense. They’ll go about things a little differently sometimes. Maybe they do their best work early in the morning. Maybe they’re brilliant late at night. Maybe they have to break up their work into shorter bursts. Maybe they have to change their environment often. Maybe they need to stay put for hours at a time. Maybe they need music. Maybe they need silence. Maybe they need others around. Maybe they need solitude. Who knows? Just try to give them space to work in ways that seem weird–even counterproductive–to you.

4. Encourage the oddballs by resisting the urge to try to make them more like you.

This can be so, so hard. As leaders, we’re especially prone to, well, “leading” people to be more like we want them to be. We tell them exactly how to do something instead of giving them the leeway to get it done in a way that plays to their strengths. We prescribe the steps they should take instead of describing the results the team needs. We give them the hours we want rather than the goals we want to hit.

Bottom line? Encourage the oddballs.

23 thoughts on “4 Ways to Encourage the Oddballs

  • It’s an interesting thought. How often do we try to force others to conform? In every way we’re a society that seems to embrace conformity – dress code, standards, laws. It’s okay to be flexible. It’s okay to challenge the status quo. It’s like a good coach – leverage the talent you have and figure out ways to help each individual perform to their highest capacity regardless of system.

    • Agreed. (My disclaimer, of course, is that there are certainly some universal things to which we, as humans, conform. I’m not advocating anarchy here.)

      But the point remains. Like you said–and I love the analogy–you leverage the talent you have. In a former life I was an athletic coach (loved it), and that was one of my favorite parts–figuring out the particular talents and DNA of that particular group so that we could be the best version of “them” that we could be. No two teams are going to look alike, just like no two humans are going to be the same. There’s no universal template for either one.

  • Love this post, Matt. I think the desire to make oddballs “fit-in” is from an anxiety of suddenly being the one who doesn’t fit because the oddball made sense to a large group of other people.

    Diversity has to be inclusion, not mere tolerance. Thanks for having the courage to say this so publicly!

    • I’m not sure I’d call it courageous, but I do think it’s important that people are encouraged to be more appropriately human in the workplace (and in their childhoods, and classrooms, and so on). Not everyone is going to fit this or that template we have in our mind. Does that mean we can’t have common bonds or shared values? Absolutely not. But it does mean that how we live or display those values is going to look different from person to person, and how we do the work that we do is going to be different from person to person. We’re not all going to produce the same widgets the same way while working the same hours and wearing the same clothes. More on this here: http://themojocompany.com/2010/05/fit-in-or-dont/

  • Wow, I LOVE this post. My work in Knowledge Cultivation and Humane Communication in the People function at Mozilla is a role in a culture of weird. Oddballs? Eccentrics? Recluses? Cowboys? Passionate nerds? All a yes in our culture and every day we need to serve them, pace to them, shine the light on them and make space for them. My next click is sharing this with the leads in our team. Go oddballs! (And Matt, I’m a proclaimed fan of very few, you’re making my list- right next to David Byrne)

    • Wow, Dia. I really appreciate the kind words. I’d love to hear more about your role and what your gang is doing at Mozilla. Shout out any time–I’d love to talk shop!

      Thanks again for your comments. Cheers!

  • Thanks Matt. I feel like an oddball everyday. Fortunately my management lets me work around my schedule. My projects are always done on time, and I am passionate about my work. But I need my schedule to be extremely flexible, and I feel the company gets more from me because of this. I have always been able to find managers that allow me to design my workspace (within reason of course). Even though this often brings criticism from peers. Oddballs come with all different kinds of quirks, including crazy schedules.

  • Thanks for such a refreshing and thought-provoking article Matt. Everything you’ve described is absolutely and at times, decadently true, depending on how accepting the organization is of the lead odd ball.

    Sometimes it takes an odd ball to know an odd ball. Sometimes the lead odd ball sees the odd ballness of her staff members and thinks that there should be only one supreme odd ball. Does that make sense to you? If it does, then perhaps you’re an odd ball just like me. Cheers!

    • Thanks, Natasha! Appreciate your comments and kind words. What sorts of things indicate to you that an organization is “accepting” of oddballs?

  • Interesting article. I promote employment and inclusion of people with disabilities and find that these points are applicable to anyone that is different, whether they have a disability or not. I certainly would not say that all people with disabilities standout as “oddballs”, but they may often be misunderstood because they think differently and/or do things differently than their peers without disabilities. This is definitely an article about DIVERSITY/INCLUSION…..we all come with our own strengths and limitations. The challenge is to identify those strengths and figure out how to utilize them for everyone’s benefit.

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