Can Your Company Embrace the “Strange” Brain?

When I was a little girl, I was put through a lot of testing. I was a fascinating case. Intelligence tests showed I was smart, but I was an abominable student, and no learning disabilities could be diagnosed. Actually, I don’t even know if I would qualify to be called a student because almost all I did was play with my pencil and stare into space or out the window, daydreaming. I still remember sitting in the second grade with a math worksheet in front of me envisioning giraffes, rather than attempting to calculate numbers. I didn’t have trouble sitting still (for those who would say I probably had/have hyper-activity attention deficit disorder), and I could pay attention when something really interested me. I could pay very close and sustained attention to All My Children, which I watched with my nanny, and was smart enough, and deliberative-thinking enough, to analyze the characters and situations with her. So I’m guessing I didn’t have attention deficit disorder, either, unless it was a very selective case of it, in which I could control when I did and didn’t have it.

Eventually, it was determined that I had an unclassified information processing disorder—meaning I process information differently than other people do. So, in other words, I’m creative?

A creative mind is probably all it was, after all, as I went on to become an honors student as an older teenager, and in college and graduate school. If it were a “disorder,” then it was one I either grew out of or learned to make the most of.

A recent article in The Washington Post by Colby Itkowitz, “The workplace is a last bastion of stigma. But even that’s beginning to change,” reminded me of my own struggles living life with a brain that doesn’t function the same as most other people’s. Even after I started doing well in school, when I was in graduate school, I still had a good friend who would remind me now and again that I was “pretty out there.” The article highlights the needs of people with mental illness, such as depression or psychosis, to integrate into the workforce, but, actually, corporations often have problems appreciating anyone with a brain that differs from the majority/group think brain.

There is a tendency in large and even conservative, small organizations to lose patience with any idea or concept that is not easily understood, or easily matched up with proven models. For example, when reading articles by our contributors that are more creative in nature (those using storytelling or anecdotes), my boss often will lose patience and write all in caps: YOU’RE LOSING ME.

Many director- and senior-level employees at my company, and perhaps yours, are similar. If they don’t get a new idea right away, and if it doesn’t fit into familiar patterns, they quickly discard the idea and move onto something more concrete, and usually more uninspiring (and often unsuccessful).

The good news is you can start grooming your newest employees to appreciate thinking that’s not just outside the box, but that doesn’t come from a box at all. For instance, you could offer rewards for innovation in your business once or twice a year, with a monetary reward that would motivate participation. You could offer, say a $5,000 or $10,000 (or more) reward once a year to the employee (or group of employees) who develops an idea that would be considered revolutionary for your company or your industry. “Revolutionary” can be defined any way you like—as long as you define it so there is no confusion. It could mean simply a product different from any you’ve manufactured or invested in before, such as a product that would start a whole new category for your business, or a way of marketing your services that offers a sharp change from your usual methods of advertising. If you’ve only done traditional advertising, it might mean a “viral” social media marketing campaign that draws attention to your company’s products by interesting consumers enough to pass along a video you create, or by getting consumers to participate in a challenge related to what you sell, or advocate for, like last year’s famous ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

I’ve heard that one thing Millennials hate is being thought of as a group entity, rather than as individuals with individual-specific preferences—and ways of approaching the world. Taking steps to encourage innovative, “strange” thinking, and embracing the “strange brains” among your employees is a great way to keep your company relevant for the next generation of employees and customers.

How friendly is your company to “weird” ways of thinking, and “crazy” new ideas? Do you have any stories to share of how your company believed in an employee’s “strange” new idea, and turned it into a profitable business venture?

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