The reality of working with oddballs

I read two great articles this weekend. The first, The Real Legacy of Steve Jobs, appeared in Fast Company and chronicles his lifelong attempts to become more collaborative, process-oriented and patient; traits creative geniuses don’t usually possess. The second article, in Inc magazine, It’s About to Get Weird, has tips on how to cultivate an off-beat culture and deal with weirdos (their word) in the workplace.

The article isn’t about the  run-of-the-mill oddball characters that show up in every  prime-time workplace sitcom – loveable weirdos like Mimi in The Drew Carey Show, Kenneth in 30 Rock or Finch in Just Shoot Me.  It defines workplace weirdos as people who don’t fit the corporate culture but are kept around because they have extraordinary and specialized skills that contribute to the bottom line. The author highlights Steve Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak as examples, noting that, in their early days at Atari, they had to work the graveyard shift because they couldn’t play well with others.

Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell felt it was worth it to accommodate the two Steves and said: “A really, really talented person can do the work of 100 non-talented people. If they’re talented enough, get another building and put them in there by themselves.”

I thought about the oddballs I’ve come across in various workplaces over my career. While most of them had some of the traits of weirdness outlined in the article – social awkwardness, questionable hygiene, an absolute disdain for teamwork – very few brought any kind of extraordinary genius to the table.

I worked with one senior VP who brought a lot of money into the company but ignored co-workers in the elevator, stopped talking to female colleagues when they got pregnant and regularly punched holes through walls.  In my government days I had a colleague who wore a powder-blue leisure suit every day and measured his cubicle each morning in case someone had tried to reduce its square footage overnight. And I’ve had to collaborate with people so universally hated that co-workers would do anything to avoid being in a room with them. I’ve also worked with extreme introverts who know their comfort level and have chosen roles that require only minimal contact with other humans. They’re not going out for sushi with their co-workers but they do their job and don’t bother anyone.

Each of these people were “weird” in the sense that they didn’t fit the culture but I wouldn’t characterize any of them as a creative genius who was essential to the organization’s success. In fact, in most cases, the polarization they cause offsets any gains achieved by their presence. When an employer enables childish, truculent or downright vicious workplace behaviour in return for some kind of payoff – real or perceived – they risk alienating all of the other employees who show up on time, play nice in the sandbox and follow the rules.

In short, I’ve worked with a lot of oddballs but none of them have gone on to be the enigmatic visionary leader of the most powerful brand in the world.



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