Corporations Aren't Recruiting Enough Weirdos

We need to expand our definition of diversity to include the weird—a group often maligned and avoided. These are people who appear to us as different, strange, and even offbeat; they just don’t fit in.

There is potency and innovativeness in certain kinds of weirdness that can help businesses thrive.

The key for leaders is to figure out how to support weird people so that they create—not destroy—value for the company. Some of these people have stifled their offbeat creativity out of social fear, camouflaging their true selves because they think it’s not appropriate at work to be as they really are. They leave essential parts of themselves at the office door.

Weirdness manifests itself in two ways. One involves people who act weird just to oppose the norm. I call that the “little w” in weird. Little w is all about “me.” It makes you feel good to be different, but you’re not contributing what you could—what is really needed. These weird people often have voracious egos.

In contrast, “big W” weird people oppose the norm, though not just for the sake of standing out. Rather, they are trying to see something or to achieve a larger goal, and they know that following a normal path won’t get them there. Often these folks are more humble than their “little w” brethren; they are just focused on getting a great result. Consider this passage about Michelangelo:

He ignored even the most basic tasks of self-maintenance. Not only did he bathe “very rarely,” he rarely even changed clothes, sleeping in full regalia–shoes included. His assistant once complained that, “He has sometimes gone so long without taking (his shoes) off that then the skin came away, like a snake’s, with the boots.”

This behavior may have been a result of autism which also likely caused his social awkwardness, reluctance to interact with people, and tendency to just walk away from a person in the middle of a conversation.

It was also likely his autism that let him focus on his work obsessively, to the sacrifice of absolutely everything else in his life. Which allowed him to create this …

Photograph by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Michelangelo, the author believes, suffered from autism before that diagnosis was known, and he may have come off as simply “weird” to his peers. The artist exemplifies a critical lesson: Weirdness can look like a problem but, in fact, it’s quite often the solution.

In our research, we interview those whose colleagues flag them as different. Our initial findings suggest that these people often struggle as a result of their weirdness. I hear stories of pain and of not fitting into a social world, but that doesn’t mean that all weird people are unhappy. I’m intrigued by what it takes to turn that struggle into positive energy and productivity.

Leaders should hire people who embody different traits and skills that are most important to the company’s goals. Those differences include subtle ones—such as personality, ways of thinking, or problem-solving—as well as visible differences, such as race, gender, or culture. Instead of seeing diversity as a distracting mandate handed down from human resources, leaders should use these differences to build a workforce that gives them a competitive advantage.

One company hired an executive who was difficult to work with: bright, innovative, and very combative in his personal style. This company had a collegial and easygoing culture, and he clearly did not fit. Still, he had a long tenure with the company because he was “constructively disruptive,” persistently challenging the group-think and conflict-avoidance that had, in the past, stymied decision-making.

Finding constructively weird people starts with knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team and your company. Then it requires searching for the person with the attributes you need in order to compensate for what you don’t do well.

There’s much more to learn about the weirdness factor. The question I continue to explore is why some people who stand out as weird also thrive, while other weird people wither. Whatever their path, people who are different are the ones who will help you grow. We can learn a lot from weirdness and weird people. We can learn how those of us who struggle to stand out and be noticed can do so more effectively.