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We are all abnormal

First published in the online Maverick Paradox magazine December 2020

Photo credit Alan Bendig


We’re all abnormal, and that’s a good thing!


Who wants to be normal?


A huge amount of organisational effort goes into normalising behaviour: competency statements, sheep-dip training programmes, annual appraisals and, at a subtler level, peer pressure to conform as well as institutional norms about “what sort of person gets on around here”.


True, if our values, beliefs and skills don’t fit with the organisation, we’re likely to move on – or get asked to do so. Organisations need people who stand for the things that are important for them and do the things that they need. But they also need a peppering of Socialised Mavericks [1], not just rank after bland rank of conformists.


In a recent workshop, working virtually with three teams based in the US and Canada, we were reminded powerfully that no team succeeds, let alone grows, by everyone trying to be like everyone else. In fact, over the course of four three-hour sessions on successive days, we saw the individual strengths and contributions start to shine for each person present. On the first day, each of the team attempted a collaborative exercise where the results were OK, but no better than at least some of the team members could have achieved on their own. By the end of the four days, two of the teams were achieving better than any individual in them could have done and the third was close – an outperformance phenomenon that my co-facilitator, Anton McBurnie, refers to as “team synergy”[2].

Now, any of the three teams could have simply pooled their thoughts, taken a vote and gone for consensus. But in our experience when they try to just get along and go for the safe middle ground, the results are literally average. In those situations, half the team pulls up the results of the other half of the team, until they get to about half-way.


Not even as good as the best half of the team and certainly not the best possible.


This sort of cosy compromise is an example of a normative team process – it gets everyone to the soft centre, but it does not hit the real mark. It’s safe territory for conformists but it’s an uncomfortable position for mavericks, who naturally want to hold out for more. At this stage, any Extreme Mavericks [3] in the group may try to impose their will, go rogue or go alone. In our experience, these behaviours result at best a bit of short-term disruption and shake-up – never a sustained bump in team performance. Generally, the Extreme Maverick behaviour becomes the focus of the team: rather than focus on their team results, they focus on managing the maverick. Any Socialised Mavericks present will, however, do something more useful – and that is to start questioning what is going on and asking how they, and the others in the team, can get to a better outcome.


Half good, in their view, is not nearly good enough.


As we saw with these three virtual teams, the Socialised Maverick contribution encourages teams that are going to be successful to start being curious about the contributions from each individual. What does Peter bring to the table that is different from Marie? What is it that Omar does that sometimes adds a great idea, other times takes the team down a blind alley? And when he does those things, how do the other team members add to and channel those creative juices? This requires a high level of honesty, transparency, disclosure and feedback within the team. See my previous article here.


In order for the team to raise its game, the individuals have to be realistic with themselves and their colleagues; they have to become honest about how and when each person’s habits contribute to, or detract from, the results for the team.


What doesn’t work here is norming – everyone trying to become like everyone else. Norming keeps the team back from giving its best and drives towards the average instead. In our experience, the investment many organisations make in competency frameworks, with a standardised set of normalised behaviours for every manager, may actually hold back the natural progression of teams from norming to performing. What works instead is a focus on distinctive contribution and behavioural diversity, which are preconditions for team learning and sustained performance improvement. See here.


At an individual level, this works just the same way.


Individuals who try to master every skill in the behavioural repertoire end up seemingly average at everything. The team cannot play to their strengths because they demonstrate no outstanding strengths!

Our general view here is simple: play to your strengths and manage your weaknesses. We are not arguing against behavioural flexibility – it’s clearly useful to be more than a one-trick pony in any work setting. We are saying that it’s best for yourself and the rest of the team if you invest in developing and applying what you are already good at; rather than sweating areas of lesser strength until you become, at best, average.


You need to manage the downside of those lesser strengths, of course, to make sure that it is not causing outright problems for anyone. As an example, our bright spark Omar is almost certainly best off when he collaborates with team-mates who are good at taking his smart ideas, picking the winners and turning them into practical suggestions – rather than trying to be the idea generator, selector and implementer all by himself (and probably up doing none of these things in a very satisfactory way). This way, he can contribute effectively to the team in a way that the team can understand and make use of, and let others do their different thing to complement what he does so well.


What’s more, he isn’t having to keep putting conscious effort into doing things that are less easy for him: it’s hard work being normal.


A diverse team that uses its diversity well, and keeps working on improvement, will outperform any individual in the team – however stellar that person’s skills, qualifications and experience.


Teams that are a bit wonky, abnormal and maverick do better on a sustained basis than teams that are consistent and conformist.


And that, we think, is something both to celebrate and to cultivate.


Footnote


[1][3] Socialised Maverick, Extreme Maverick – Judith Germain. (2017) The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders, PublishNation


[2] Isaac, M. & McBurnie, A. (2015): “Close the Interaction Gap”, Bridge Publishing