Friday, September 17, 2004

'Weirdness' in the Workplace

Some weirdoes belong at work
Eccentrics whose behaviour is rooted in high performance and intellect should be accommodated and celebrated by their employers, JOHN PUTZIER writes
By John Putzier
UPDATED AT 12:51 PM EDT Friday, Sep 17, 2004

Which bathroom does a transsexual use? Is body odour protected by freedom of religion? Should someone be allowed to wear the same suit to work every day? What if your receptionist is also a stripper at night? What if your chief executive officer is one of her best patrons?

Weirdness, it seems, is becoming the norm in today's workplace. The challenge for organizations is to distinguish weird behaviour that is rooted in high performance/high intellect from that which is just annoying or even destructive. Then they should dedicate more time, money and other resources to designing organizations around the needs and values of the weird high performers.

But whatever happened to the good old days when people looked and acted normal, came to work every day, did their jobs, didn't rock the boat and stayed until retirement? Why has the world of work become so weird? Well, you could have seen it coming, if you understood Principle #1:

As goes the world, so goes the workplace

The workplace is a microcosm of society. In a nutshell, when you refer to the good old days when people were "normal" and the workplace was a sea of tranquillity, you are referring to the Age of the Organization Man (1950s and 60s). It was post-Second World War, and organizations were run by white men, managing other white men, in a command and control style. Getting ahead was a function of getting along, being easy to manage was a core competency, and teamwork was synonymous with harmony. Life was good (for white men).

Enter the Age of Diversity (the seventies and eighties). Forced diversity, that is. The Civil Rights Act and Equal Employment Opportunity in the United States, women's liberation, baby boomers entering the work force, and government regulation out the wazoo, all coming together to create chaos and confusion for the Organization Man. Workplaces were more diverse, but not more liberated. It was the birth of human resource management and compliance officers. Protected classes (such as women and minorities) were coming out of the woodwork, but the keys to the boardroom were still in the hands of the Organization Men.

Managing was no longer fun (or easy), and when you add recession and reductions in the work force, it was the perfect time and opportunity for the Organization Men to take early retirement incentive options.

The next societal trends that manifested themselves in the workplace were a combination of high-technology, redirected loyalties (to self and profession, rather than to a company), talent shortages, dot-coms, venture capitalists, employee owners and new-found freedoms and fun at work. This was the Age of the New Economy and expectations were high.

Suddenly companies were forced to hire talent (or just warm bodies) over anything else. Workers now had clout, not necessarily through position power, but through their perceived valuable expertise. For the first time in North American history, workers took control to transform and redefine the world of work. Then Bang: 9/11, recession, outsourcing, corporate scandals, consolidations and the dot-com bust combined to take the wind out of the sails of the free-agent nation. It's every man/woman for him/herself. But workers got a taste of freedom, fun and the financial rewards of sweat equity, and do not want to put the genie back in the bottle, which brings us to the Age of the Individual.

From An Army of One to reality TV to survival games to fashion to the revered eccentricities of our celebrities, the normalization of weirdness has begun. And that means new rules and Principle #2:

All workers are not created equal

We have transcended the legal definition of diversity (race, sex, national origin) to one of individuality. A weirdo is anyone not like you, which is why there are so many of them out there! We are no longer a melting pot. We're a tossed salad. You can't even tell by looking at someone if they are weird or not. It's not a look; it's an attitude.

This can be good news for an organization that values individual contribution. The freedoms and liberties that were introduced in the Age of the New Economy need not be abandoned, but they do need to be earned.

But, let's not fool ourselves. Not all the rights and privileges of society automatically transfer to the workplace. Freedom of expression, protections from search and seizure, and rights of privacy are not guaranteed nor required in the world of work. E-mail can be monitored; lockers and desks searched; behaviours can be managed.

The key to organizational success in the Age of the Individual requires understanding that not all "individuality" is valuable. Weirdness rooted in genius is different than weirdness that is purely for the sake of individual expression or rebellion. There is a difference between the eccentricities of an Einstein and the employee whose lack of personal hygiene knocks you over. There's a difference between a scientist with numerous patents who asks for ultimate flextime and the high-maintenance, average performer who wants an office facing East because her feng shui consultant says so.

For organizations to thrive in the Age of the Individual, they must become meritocracies, that is, where one's success is rooted in his/her value and contribution. There are three categories of weirdoes in the workplace. Those who should be accommodated and even celebrated (geniuses and high performers), those who can be tolerated (decent hard-working people who are just annoying, but cause no harm), and those who must be terminated (whose outlandish behaviour overshadows their value to the organization), and they are all defined by a cost-benefit premise I call the Weird-Worth ratio. The more you are worth, the more you can be weird, which leads to Principle #3:

Discrimination is good, it is right and it is necessary

If we are to transcend (philosophically) the traditional definition of diversity, we must also revisit the much-aligned concept of discrimination. The word discrimination got a bad rap during the Age of Diversity, but it cannot be an automatic conclusion that discrimination is always malicious or even wrong. As a manager, if you never discriminate, you are not a manager. The key, however, is to discriminate based upon relative value and performance. That kind of discrimination is not only good, it is right, and it is necessary in the Age of the Individual, and in a meritocracy. It's not an option. Workers cannot have it both ways. If you want a culture that celebrates its individuality, you must also assume the responsibility of making a valuable individual contribution.

Key to making a successful transition to a meritocracy is education. Educate your workers as to the performance criteria by which survival and success are measured, and that if individuality is to be a celebrated core value of your organization, then the individual must also be responsible for earning the right to be treated as an individual, to be a weirdo of worth! In the Age of the Organization Man, the organization took primary responsibility for workers' futures. They were highly paternalistic cultures. Keep your nose clean, and we'll take care of you. In the Age of the New Economy, workers started to take control of their own destinies. However, in the Age of the Individual, it is incumbent upon both the organization and the individual to take responsibility for tapping their natural weirdness.

A high-performing weirdo of worth has found the unique intersection of his interests (that which s/he loves), her abilities (that which s/he does better than most) and the market (that for which there is a demand). And when that happens, the organization owes it to such rare breeds to accommodate and to celebrate them. And anything the organization can do to facilitate that discovery is a win-win until we have attained Principle #4:

The more weirdoes there are, the fewer there are

Ultimately in the Age of the Individual, and in a high-performing meritocracy, the concept of weirdoes in the workplace becomes relative. In other words, when weirdness becomes the norm, it is no longer perceived as weird. So, the more weirdoes you hire, the fewer you have. It may sound rather utopian, but it is the right direction in which to aim if you and your organization wish to thrive in the Age of the Individual. Now go Get Weird!

John Putzier is the president of a U.S. human resource strategy firm. His newest book is Weirdos in the Workplace! The New Normal. . . Thriving in the Age of the Individual.

Tapping your natural weirdness

You're good at something; you love it, and they pay you for it! It doesn't get any better than this! These are the people that every employer wants to hire and are sometimes the "weirdoes in the workplace" who are cherished, i.e., the ones rooted in genius and high performance.

They have tapped their natural weirdness to the max, and life is good. They jump out of bed in the morning, or maybe even in the middle of the night, anxious to take on another day.

A key point is to not think of yourself as a job title or even in terms of a particular occupation. In other words, you are not just an accountant. You may be an accountant with strong sales and influence skills. You are not just an engineer. You may be an engineer with a flair for the creative and innovative. Once you have identified your abilities and interests, you can merge them into a powerful, and real, personal statement.

Abilities and interests are transferable across multiple occupations and industries. Accountants can go into sales. They can sell accounting software, financial services or even sell themselves as independent consultants. Engineers can go into creative fields such as graphic design or visual arts.Those who are multitalented with diverse interests have more options. The larger the target, the greater your potential for hitting it. And once you find the intersection of your abilities, your interests and the market, you will be on the road to tapping your natural weirdness. You will be a weirdo to be loved and richly rewarded!