Engaging and Supporting the Team “Outsider”

Square peg into round hole

Square peg into round holeFrom a very early age, our brains have been trained to evaluate “fit.” We place a series of objects in front of toddlers and assess whether they can identify the common theme and which item doesn’t belong. Those of us who grew up with Sesame Street can probably sing the “One of these things is not like the other” song from memory.

Fast forward 20+ years and our brains are still working subconsciously to evaluate similarities and differences. We tend to connect more easily with people who think, feel, and behave the same way that we do. We accept small variations from our natural preferences in others, but as the differences become more extreme it takes more energy to accommodate others. Collaborating together can be more challenging, and communicating effectively takes effort.

Yet, we know that teams composed of members who are more dissimilar have improved outcomes over teams that are highly similar. The more diverse teams are more innovative, solve problems more effectively, and are more productive. Each person helps sharpen the thinking of the collective group, and reduces the blind spots that exist in highly homogeneous teams.

The business case for hiring diverse team members is indisputable, but it also requires leaders to engage intentionally to reinforce the value of differences amongst the team. Leaders must initiate a culture from the start where differences are celebrated and acknowledged as a valuable contribution to the overall strength of a team. This is especially critical at times when one individual’s work style, thinking style, or preferences are different from the majority of the team. The individual may encounter resistance from others or feel isolated and withdraw from contributing/collaborating unless the leader steps in to provide support.

As an example, when someone is a natural Devil’s Advocate, they tend to have a thinking style that lends itself well to asking tough questions. They see value in asking the tough questions and being open to the answers (even if the information isn’t positive news). This can be a frustration for teams that are highly creative and cohesive. They tend to move at a fast pace together building upon one another’s ideas and feel as though the team Devil’s Advocate is slowing them down unnecessarily. As a leader, when this interaction surfaces during a group brainstorm, it is helpful to acknowledge the value of the questions being raised and how important the questioning process is for thinking through the topic thoroughly.

Similarly, a team may have an individual who is highly analytical and tends to think of all the ways that something can go wrong. Instead of allowing the team to label this person as being negative, respond by saying “that’s an important challenge you’ve raised. Thank you for helping us think proactively about how to remove any obstacles we’ll experience. It’s more important that we get this right the first time than to come to a consensus quickly. Do you have any thoughts on how we can overcome this challenge?”

Embracing and reinforcing the value of differences in every interaction will help others recognize the positive influence that each individual has on their collective abilities. It can be very impactful to wrap up meetings by vocalizing the contributions each person made, based on their unique perspectives. Every acknowledgement of diverse perspectives will give team members confidence to continue contributing even when they seem to be the odd one out.