A person who doesn’t respond, or interact, as you expect in a job interview shouldn’t necessarily be written off. Whether due to a psychological and behavior difference caused by a neurodivergence such as autism, or due to nothing more than eccentricity, a person who differs from what you’re used to seeing could provide a boost to innovation and productivity.
Robert D. Austin and Thorkil Sonne make the case in the Harvard Business Review for giving the outlier employee a chance: “Consider the dandelion. Many people see this plant only as a weed. But it’s an excellent source of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. It’s full of vitamins A, C, E, K, niacin, and riboflavin. The lecithin in its flower can detoxify the liver, and might help combat Alzheimer’s Disease.
In the context of a pristine lawn, it’s a nuisance. Place it in a different context—as a source of nutrition—and the picture changes completely. Context has a similar impact on employees. If you adjust work conditions appropriately, you can activate people’s hidden talents.”
They note the importance of de-emphasizing conformity in optimizing contributions from outliers. From what I’ve seen in the workplace, that could mean allowing an outlier to spend time away from the office for inspiration. It might be more productive for a person who has their own way of thinking to spend a day observing a rival business than for that person to spend a day alone in their cubicle or in a meeting room strategizing with others. Being in the field with the challenges of the rival business concretely before them may be more productive for that person.
If a manager knows an employee has difficulty with meetings, but otherwise shows great promise, they could be encouraged to create a development path for that person that could be unlike any they have created before. If that path is successful, it could be used as a template for others who approach work differently. Likewise, the learnings stemming from the off-the-beaten path development opportunities that person is offered could be used to train the rest of the herd. They could be become your super-trainers.
Setting the Example
For example, let’s say you give an outlier employee the opportunity to forgo a series of meetings focused on creating a strategy to beat a rival business. Instead, you ask the employee to go out into the field and experience the rival business as a customer, and to spend time observing how other people interact with that business. The employee then comes back with learnings to share with their manager and colleagues. To take it a step further, the employee could be tapped by the company’s Learning professionals to help create a training program that would enable the company’s front-line employees to perform better than those at the rival business.
Field Investigator Role
Some outliers are great creative thinkers and visionaries, but have a harder time putting their ideas and discoveries into practical terms. Maybe the group meetings the outlier participates in become sessions in which that person can share their thoughts with the group. Their colleagues and manager can be the ones who help put the ideas to a practical use. An employee who has difficulty sitting quietly and concentrating in a long meeting may be an outstanding contributor if they are tasked with taking the lead as field investigator and presenter.
To avoid resentment from other employees, the manager could explain that the role of field investigator is an open opportunity for any employee who feels they can perform the same role just as well. Most employees know what they’re good at, and the kinds of work they are drawn to. Those who volunteer to take on that role likely also will excel at it. The outlier who kicked off this new role of in-the-field investigator can even accompany other employees to try it out.
Outliers can be challenging because they don’t fit into the management templates you already have in place. However, this presents you the opportunity to create new templates that work even better.
How do you train your managers to work with outlier employees? Do you encourage flexibility in management approaches?