The Age of the Individual (Rejoicing!)
It is coming. In fact, it is already here, but many organizations just haven't figured it out yet, or may still be hoping it will go away. Forget about it! Look around. And don't forget, "As goes the world, so goes the workplace." New workers got a taste of what it is like to be appreciated for their individual value, and demonstrated how hard they will work and how much they will sacrifice for an organization in which they have a stake and that rewards them accordingly. The work ethic is not dead; it has just been redefined.
There's no "I" in team, but there ain't no "we" either!
In the Age of the Organization Man, the concept of teamwork was irrelevant. In the Age of the Individual, teamwork isn't irrelevant, but it is becoming marginalized, particularly where high performance and rare talent is concerned. Whoever coined the phrase, "there is no 'I' in team," didn't seem to notice that "there ain't no 'WE' either!"
If societal trends predict workplace trends, you don't have to look very far to see where we are going. From reality TV, to "An Army of One," to professional sports, to style and fashion, to music and entertainment, the individual predominates, particularly if that individual is a star, or thinks he is. Standing out is far more important than fitting in, and the rewards are getting greater and greater.
Think about it. Even in team sports, the individual has become king. It may take a team to win a championship, but it's the individual who is inducted into the hall of fame. It's the individual whose records are remembered. It's the individual who breaks them. It may take a team to play a game, but your star scorer can't score unless she has the ball. Teamwork and the concept of free agency do not mix well.
So why and how can we rejoice in the Age of the Individual? Well, aren't you one? It doesn't mean that people don't still pull together and pitch in for each other. It doesn't mean that we still cannot accomplish more, and be more creative as a group. What it does mean is that organizations must now learn to identify, recognize, and reward their stars, shift their focus and emphasis on individual achievement and on finding, attracting, motivating, and rewarding as many of them as they can. It also means the end of catering to the middle and wasting excessive time and resources trying to teach a rock to swim. It's not an option if you strive to thrive in the Age of the Individual.
Understand that when you hire superstars, you do not have a team. You have a collection of individuals. It's the cold, hard truth. And it isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you have them doing what they should be doing. Ask any high performer what they think about depending on others for their success (i.e., a team), and in their moment of truth they will tell you quite bluntly that they would prefer to go it alone. You will learn more about this concept of "self-efficacy" later, so hold that thought.
Let's face it, most Americans are not inherently team players. We are not a collective society. Asians are collective. Americans are rugged individualists. We were founded by the malcontents who left the flock. It's just not in our culture to rely on others unless we have to. People will play the game and play along if it is necessary for them to meet their goals, but they feel stifled. Because they are!
Don't get me wrong. It's not like they want to work in a cave. They still want and need others as resources, sounding boards, and comrades, and they will instantly become a cohesive team in a crisis situation, but they do not want to be shackled (stifled) by being forced to defer to a team or a task force on something that is their true forte. Why?
Because in the Age of the Individual, the burning question inside each person is continually, "What's in it for me?" That's not the ethic we saw in the Post WWII era of the '50s, nor is it necessarily mercenary or narcissistic, but it is a new normal for the realities of today's world. And today's world is where we are living. Like it or not, it is what it is. And this is your wake-up call!
Good News/Bad News
Today's high performers have a free-agent mentality. Even those working for large corporations think and act like entrepreneurs. But the concept is not entirely new. Did you ever hear of Einstein participating on a quality circle team? Did you ever see Edison engaged in a group hug or team-building exercise? I don't think so! Geniuses and rare talent don't do well on teams. Never have; never will.
But now they rule, and they can even rule within organizations, if we let them. They must no longer be confined to working in R&D centers, skunk works or as sole proprietors. And traditional team members don't really like them. So why punish everyone, including yourself?
Even where artistic and creative genius requires working together, it's like oil and water. Look at how many rock bands and other performing arts groups, even the most successful ones, break up because of personality differences, clashes in creative concepts, and other non-team-like behavior. Many eventually decide to go out as soloists instead. This isn't really new, but it is becoming more prevalent in society and therefore in the workplace, thus making it necessary to learn how to embrace it in the most productive and profitable manner possible.
Those who know me already know that I not only respect weirdness, but actually encourage it. You also know that my respect for weirdos lies in the assumption that their weirdness is rooted in brilliance, high performance, rare talent, or some added value to an organization and/or to society; that they have tapped their "natural weirdness," the very essence of why they were added to the human gene pool. But weirdness knows no boundaries.
There are also weirdos who not only bring nothing of value to the game, but are actually a drain, and whose weirdness should not be fostered or even accommodated. We're talking about the difference between an Albert Einstein and a Charles Manson; a Martin Luther King and an Adolf Hitler. Although they were all weirdos in their own right, that does not necessarily mean they all added value to the world. To quote Albert Einstein, "the difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits."
The point is that some weirdos are good, some are bad, and some are just an annoyance. Some add incredible value to the world, while others are merely a painful lesson to the rest of it. Some deserve to be loved, some should just be left alone, and others need to be lost forever. You will see all three categories in the cases that follow.
The goal is to win the winners, lose the losers, and learn how to tolerate or relocate those in the middle; but the real challenge is to know which are which, and what to do with them once you know. It's time for organizations to get tough about the deployment of human resources. Not everyone's weirdness deserves to be accommodated.
Exalting the Age of the Individual is a double-edged sword. On the one side, it can offer incredible opportunity and rewards to the best and the brightest, but it also requires us to bite the bullet when one's individuality offers nothing or even detracts from the greater good.
Think about it. What modern technology company wouldn't love to hire the next Thomas Edison? What sports team wouldn't jump at a chance to violate their salary cap to recruit just a few Michael Jordans or Tiger Woods? What art school wouldn't give their left ear for a contemporary Van Gogh or Michelangelo? What recording label wouldn't sign a bazillion dollar deal with the reincarnated Elvis? (I think one already did.) But once they got them, would they know what to do with them? And could they tolerate the wild eccentricities that can go along with the manifestation of their genius? In the Age of the Individual, we must learn to do so.
Traditionalists and bureaucrats refer to our society and its organizations as a melting pot. I prefer to think of it as a stir-fry, or a tossed salad. No one stands out in a melting pot. In a melting pot, everything is just fused into an indistinguishable blob. In a stir-fry or tossed salad, each individual component maintains its uniqueness, and contributes to the overall experience without losing its distinctive strength or identity. You can still see and taste the red tomato. You can still see and taste the green pepper. After all, you wouldn't put a bunch of salad fixings into a blender would you? Similarly, there are some things you would never put into a salad or a stir-fry, but they would be perfect in some other dish.
And that's the point! Everything and everyone has its place, but not everywhere! And, wherever that is, people want and need and deserve to retain their uniqueness. The same is true of organizations. You may not stand out, or excel, in one job or company or industry, but in another, you may develop into a real winner. Same person, different context; same vegetable, different dish. And it's up to the individual and the organization to participate in this journey.
That's why you will find tools and techniques in Chapter 4 that address this issue from all possible perspectives (changing others, changing organizations, and ultimately changing yourself).
The bottom line is that the world of work has changed, never to be the same again. From the advent of diversity and equal opportunity in the '70s, to the tech-nerd boom of the '90s, to the increased emphasis on political correctness and hyper-sensitivity of today, no one seems to know exactly how to act, or even if to act without fear of retribution or persecution. Vanilla has become the safe flavor of choice in many organizations today. And that has to change. It will change.
Please note, however, that in order to maximize and capitalize on this new mindset, both individually and organizationally, does not imply a new laissez-faire management style. With an increasingly exaggerated emphasis on "tolerance of anything and anyone" rooted in a new carte blanche "non-judgmentalism," combined with the new desire for "freedom without responsibility" with the overarching goal of attaining "self-esteem and fulfillment at any cost," you have a recipe for disaster. Weirdness for weirdness' sake is not the goal of a healthy society or organization.
The perceived politically correct need to treat everyone "equally" has resulted in the institutionalization of mediocrity and to the spinelessness of decision-makers. The era of the meritocracy (i.e., an organization in which one's success or failure is dependent upon his/her contribution and value) is long overdue, which exemplifies the underlying purpose of this book: to recognize, value, and foster the beneficial side of weirdness, while putting the brakes on "anything goes at anyone's expense." It's time to get real!
Why Are So Many High Performers So Weird?
Since understanding high performers is one of our goals, let's learn more about what makes them tick. We will go into much greater depth and detail on this subject in Chapter 3, "What's IN With High-Performers?," but for starters, it will help to understand a couple of basic psychological concepts specific to rare talent.
Everyone behaves perfectly rationally, from their point of view
Many high-level thinkers, creative types, geniuses, and results-oriented individuals are low in something called "self-monitoring" behavior. In other words, they do not look in the mirror and ask themselves, "How do others see me?" They don't care! It rarely even enters their mind. They focus almost exclusively on one, narrow area of their expertise or their interest to the potential detriment of how the rest of the world may perceive them.
I admit that I have been as guilty as anyone of this so-called shortcoming, resulting in the occasional social faux pas. I have even rationalized it afterward by saying things like, "I wasn't really looking for new friends anyway." Rejecting others before they reject you is a form of self-defense and self-preservation. You will see this behavior in many individualists, and particularly in those who can "afford" to be different later in the book.
Some high-profile, easily recognizable examples of successful low self-monitors include the historic figures we've already mentioned, like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. But there are plenty of more contemporary weirdos like pop-singer Michael Jackson, the legendary Elvis, shock-jock Howard Stern, and even Herb Kelleher, long-time former CEO of Southwest Airlines. I'm sure you can think of many more in everyday modern life.
Some are respected and even admired, some are disdained, but all are highly accomplished, celebrated, and rewarded in their respective fields and equally odd and curious in many ways. Ironically, they succeed both in spite of and because of their low self-monitoring behavior. Isn't it strange how we are rewarding the most antisocial and perceptually abnormal among us? This is a key principle for you and your organization to understand in order to be able not only to tolerate, but to maximize the value of rare talent.
Traditionally, we think of actors, artists, athletes, and scientific geniuses as the most stereotypical examples of brilliant or talented, but bizarre individuals. But today, that same human enigma is penetrating the everyday workplace. In some cases, the weirdness may not even be exhibited on the job or even in appearance, but rather after hours in the form of weird hobbies, diversions, perversions, or other kinky outlets pursued to fulfill some latent, unsatisfied need.
Case in point: Google, the highly acclaimed web-search engine company, is a case study in savvy management, a company filled with cutting-edge ideas, and an anomaly in the here today, gone tomorrow world of digital technology. Google spends more time on hiring than on anything else. They look for young risk-takers. They define smart as, "Do they do something weird outside of work, something off the beaten path?" They believe that this translates into people who have no fear of trying difficult projects and going outside the bounds of what they know. They do not fear experimentation or change, but initiate it instead. They live and work outside the box.
But is it an employer's business to concern itself with employees' private lives? It isn't, unless it impacts job performance, the business, co-workers, and/or customers, in which case, it does become the employer's business and at which time the complexities of managing become immense. It also takes courage and creativity to do it right. You will see quite a few examples of this in the upcoming case studies, from the commonplace to the bizarre.
Another psychological commonality of high-performers is something called "self-efficacy" (also called internal attribution), which means that many of these "types" perceive themselves as having greater control over their lives and the lives of others than the average person. They rarely see themselves as victims of circumstances. Rather, they are usually the perpetrators of circumstances. They have a greater than usual tendency to "attribute" success or failure to their own actions rather than to external factors.
They accept responsibility, grab it by the horns, and find it next to impossible to conceive or concede that they may not have, or deserve, complete control. They can be boat-rockers, rebels, and malcontents. This is a wonderful and valuable attribute for an organization that rewards results and change. But it is a not-so-great attribute for those who do not share these traits, or have to work with, for, or over themespecially in situations in which they do not or should not have control. Again, you will see some examples of these in the upcoming cases, as well.
In any event, they can be dealt with, managed, and even capitalized upon. There's energy there that can be directed to awesome ends. That's exactly why some weirdos can be a blessing in disguise. The key is to know who they are and how to realize their value by not stifling it.
By the time you finish this book, you will be able to identify where, when, and how to focus your attention on unusual workplace behaviors based upon whether they have relative value or potential to the organization. You will be able to recognize alternative approaches and to select one most appropriate to you and your organization's success. And ultimately, you will have an increased understanding, acceptance, and appreciation for the ever-changing world around you, be able to see it coming, and hopefully be on the road to tapping your natural weirdness to become a more valuable member of the Age of the Individual.
What Will This Book Do for Me?
Weirdos in the Workplace will change the way you think and act about worker behavior, and will empower you to take appropriate action where necessary. You will learn that it is high time to recognize that discrimination is good!
Discrimination is good; discrimination is right; discrimination is necessary!
The concept of discrimination has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and as a result, has been misinterpreted as a bad thing. If someone says you have discriminating taste, it's a compliment! It says that you are able to make worthwhile distinctions and decisions, and that is what is called for in the Age of the Individual. In fact, discrimination is not only good, but it is right and it is necessary if you expect to have any hopes of thriving in the Age of the Individual.
So, why write a book that chronicles and analyzes weird behaviors at work? Well, there are several reasons. On the broadest, most prurient level, people just enjoy observing the human condition in its most rare or extreme form. Look at what sells on radio, TV, and the movies! Think of it as a form of societal/organizational voyeurism, like peeking at an auto accident, or watching reality TV. The cases alone make for a fun, and sometimes distressing read.
On a more focused and pragmatic level, however, since most of us have to spend over half our waking hours working with and for other people, it could come in handy to have a handbook or reference guide for survival and success. At one end of the spectrum, we need to learn how to understand and deal with those who cause us the most challenge, pain, or frustration, while at the other end, we need to learn how to accommodate, retain, and elicit excellence from the most powerfully talented of them all.
I recall in my earlier career as a corporate recruiter how candidates in job interviews would always say, "I like to work with people." I got so fed up with this moronic cliché that I got into the habit of following up with the question, "As opposed to what? Dogs?" I hope you like to work with people, because there are an awful lot of them out there! Regardless of your occupation, you can rarely escape human beings! And remember, a weirdo is anyone not like you. Thus, this book!
Finally, and most personally, once you realize the value of "tapping your natural weirdness," you will want to become a high-performing weirdo of worth, if you aren't already. Chapter 4 covers a concept called AIM, which represents the quest to identify and target the intersection of your Abilities, your Interests, and the Market.
Weirdos in the Workplace is an anthology of real-life case studies, showcasing some of the most bizarre behaviors at work, as well as some of the more common, but still challenging, weirdness that occurs in many workplaces, but for which most of us have no clear solution. It is, however, more than just a compilation of workplace horror stories, and it is not just another management book.
It is intended to transcend the pure human resource, management, and business genre to have general appeal and value to anyone who enjoys studying the human condition and anyone who wants to survive and thrive in today's world of work. In order to make this a truly experiential learning activity, I have collected and compiled a diverse portfolio of real-life workplace cases, which you can read, ponder, and then try to come up with your own solutions. Following each case is an expert analysis, accompanied in Chapter 4 by some universal tools and techniques that can be used to approach virtually any behavioral or organizational challenge.
It's a whole package. In Chapter 2, we start with the challenges created by individuals within organizations and offer some solutions. Then, in Chapter 3 we identify the five initiatives for creating a successful organization in the Age of the Individual. Then, in Chapter 4 we move to the dynamics and conditions of individual behavioral change, followed by a "how-to" tool and process for identifying, categorizing, and initiating organizational change. We will finish with a very personal section on how you, too, can become a high performer, which should be one of your goals while reading this book. As you will learn, the more you're worth, the more you can be weird!
In terms of the cases, as a general philosophy, it helps to understand a basic tenet that I teach students of organizational behavior: "contingency theory," which means that the answer to almost every human challenge is "it depends!" There is almost never just one solution, almost always a second right answer, and always more than one wrong answer, as well! That's what makes it so frustrating and so interesting at the same time. That's what makes management as much of an art as it is a science. It is also what makes it not for everyone. Managing today is not for the timid, the uncreative, or the lazy, particularly in the Age of the Individual.
Let's try a few on for size. Is body odor protected by freedom of religion? Which restroom should a trans-sexual use, particularly during their gender reassignment? May an employee moonlight as a stripper? What if the CEO is one of her patrons? Is it sexual harassment if I like it? Tough questions! Do you have solutions?
These are just a few of the unusual and challenging real-life case studies that are profiled and analyzed, but I have not overlooked the fact that there are more common, but almost equally as challenging people problems that can rear their ugly heads at work, so I have included those types of cases as well, such as the employee who buries porno movies on his expense report, the customer who's not always right and whose tirades are not worth the business, and the employee who is always poking at the system for attention.
Just chronicling bizarre and eccentric behavior in the workplace would be an amusing read by itself, but please understand that voyeuristic titillation is not the goal. Whether you agree with some of the weirdness that is becoming ever more evident in our world is not relevant here. This book is not a statement about religion, politics, or morality. It is a book about reality. It's a human resources serenity prayer.
Whatever your religious, political, or societal values and convictions, you cannot escape the reality that we are not all the same, and that society, particularly American society, is increasingly encouraging and even rewarding individuality and extreme behaviora "new normal." That can be a good thing or a bad thing, which is a fundamental premise and message of this book.
The definition of "weird" is changing as well. The more weirdos there are, the fewer you actually see. For example, weirdos are more visible in Pittsburgh than they are in San Francisco. Why? Because the definition and perception of "normal" is much narrower in Pittsburgh than it is in San Francisco. Because weird has not become the norm in Pittsburgh.
And, like it or not, our laws, our media, our educational systems, and just about every other symbol and institution of our society are moving toward embracing this "new normal." The "normalization of weirdness" is in process right now, and if it is a given, we have no choice but to create new rules and tools to cope with it, deal with it, and to succeed because of or in spite of it. We cannot change reality. But we can change our reactions to it.
This book is not intended to be politically incorrect, nor offensive. In fact, I think you will find that it is actually just the opposite. It is honest and direct, which may be considered politically incorrect by some. But, once you understand that in the purest sense, everyone is a weirdo, including you; that the healthiest and most productive definition of diversity is individuality, not race, sex or some other governmental/regulatory definition; and that we must learn to make distinctions based on this new awareness and value of individuality, then you, the organization in which you work, and society at large will all be better for it.
And finally, the disclaimer.
Please note that the names of people and organizations, as well as some of the circumstances referenced in this book have been changed to protect their privacy. The analyses and commentaries are provided as general information and are not a substitute for legal or other professional advice. Neither the author, publisher, nor any other party to the publication or dissemination of this book may be held liable for the use, misuse, or misunderstanding of its content.