Thursday, August 25, 2011

Working Outliers, Part I

All cooperative groups struggle with how to work constructively with members who position themselves on the outer edge, and I want to explore some of the nuances that come into play with this dynamic. In groups that make decisions by majority rule, outlier dynamics are often sidestepped simply through the convenience of voting, in consensus-based groups however, the culture is obliged to work with all elements, and that means the edges as well as the center.

In my next four blog entries I'll examine outlier dynamics through the following sequence:

I. Considered as a Singular Occurrence
II. Considered as a Pattern Based on Temperament or Style
III. Considered as a Pattern Based on Values
IV. Considered as a Strategy

• • •
Considered as a Singular Occurrence
Before we look at the more complex dynamics of patterned behavior (the "professional" outlier), let's start with what's going on in an isolated incident, where there is little or no history of the person on the edge having been in that position previously.

How it looks to the individual
As a rule, the outlier is well aware that they're holding an unpopular position, and it's likely that no small amount of soul searching has gone into the decision of whether or not they'll reveal their position. For most people—especially those unused to being in that position—it's lonely and uncomfortable out there. If the person decides that the stakes aren't high enough (that is, they don't care that much about the outcome of the consideration) they may prefer to not speak and let the issue go, to avoid awkwardness.

While there are people for whom it's no big deal to be an outlier (Ayn's Rand fictional character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead is a poster child for this kind of rock solid self confidence, that operates independently of public opinion), there aren't many for whom that's true.

If they decide to voice their views it's not unusual for their statements to be accompanied by a level of shrillness, which may be no more than an expression of their discomfort with being an outlier, rather than a measure of the strength of their convictions or an indication of reactivity to what others have said. It can be very tricky accurately reading the meaning of distress in an outlier's presentation of their views.

How it looks to the group
On the one hand, it's a hassle to have outliers. Working with divergent views takes time and doesn't always end happily. Occasionally it can be downright exhausting.

On the other hand, it's a decided advantage for the group to have other perspectives in play. When considered thoughtfully this almost always leads to a stronger ultimate decision.

If the outlier is rarely in that position and is generally perceived to be someone with significant social capital (by which I mean someone who is viewed as giving more than they are taking), the group tends to be more graceful in laboring with that person and their viewpoint.

While I'll discuss in future entries how the dynamics are altered if the person is an outlier in a patterned way, the basic strategy for working with a person holding an edge position is as follows:

a. Make sure the person feels their position has been heard (which includes an accurate naming of their emotional response if that's significant), as well as their rationale.

b. If possible, establish explicitly how the roots of the outlier's position are linked to group values (as opposed to being just an expression of personal preferences). This is important for legitimizing that the outlier's views deserve to be taken seriously.

c. If the outlier appears to be digging in their heels, remind that person that their right to be heard is paired with the responsibility to hear and work constructively with the viewpoints of others, and we need to see how they are making an honest effort to do so.

If you are facilitating attempts to find a bridge between the outlier's position and that of others, there can be delicacy around how much to cajole, how much to tread softly, how much to jawbone, and how much to just listen. Sometimes it can be significantly helpful to spend time one-on-one with the outlier (either before the meeting if you know their position ahead of time, or during a break) in order to help them stay centered and to make it clear to them that you will be their ally in getting heard.

Your number one job in this dynamic is to contradict isolation and to maintain a constructive atmosphere. If you fail to establish this bridge, it can be the very devil to get the outlier to be wiling to consider moving from their position, and the meeting atmosphere can devolve into a tug-of-war. At its worst, confusion of this kind can lead to the outlier conflating objections to their views with disapproval of them as a person or with non-acceptance of them as a group member. If possible, it's best to clear that up from the get-go.

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