Monday, August 29, 2011

Working Outliers, Part II

This is installment two of a four-part series on outliers started Aug 25.

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.

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 Pattern Based on Temperament or Style

One of the things that's invited into the room with a commitment to diversity is... diversity. In addition to different viewpoints (the focus of my next blog) this includes different ways of communicating and different ways of being in the world. Sometimes people have unusual ways of organizing information; sometimes they have styles that are more provocative or adversarial than collegial or compassionate.

Some of this is family of origin differences (think in terms of what constitutes normal discourse around the dining room table growing up—there can be enormous breadth in what's considered "normal").

These differences can result in tension independently of what might arise from disagreements about how the group should respond to the issue under consideration.

Here is a sampler of outlier personalities that showcase aspects of this dynamic. Please understand that there are myriad ways that outliers present and that this is only a taste. Also note that each of these personalities has both more evolved (read constructive or insightful) versions and less evolved (read disruptive or contentious) versions.

o The Devil's Advocate
This person typically takes the other side whenever there’s momentum building in one direction. Often, the Devil’s Advocate may voice a viewpoint they don’t personally hold. The good side of this is that the group will not inadvertently steamroll to a premature conclusion, overlooking pitfalls in a popular position. The downside is that it is often experienced as sand in the gears, and may be slowing the group down to no purpose. When a person has this label, it can be difficult to distinguish between a legitimate concern and a knee-jerk attraction to championing for the unpopular view. There can be tension directed toward the Devil’s Advocate because it will be perceived that they have an ego need to get attention when their viewpoint isn't helpful.

o The Bully
This person tends to be loud and aggressive. They have a tendency to talk over others, to talk out of turn, and to talk fast. They have learned that they can get others to drop out of the conversation or acquiesce to their views because they don’t have the stomach or will to object to their bluster and force of personality. Sometimes the intimidation is reinforced by size in addition to or instead of decibel level. Sometimes it's based on a reputation for punishing behavior afterwards, directed at those who cross swords with the Bully in a meeting. However it's packaged, the key dynamic is that others in the group reliably experience unpleasant and undesirable consequences as a direct result of disagreeing with this person, causing them to hesitate to disagree in the future. While "Bully" is a pejorative label, the good side of this is a fearlessness to state what's on their mind. You never have to guess where the Bully stands; you can count on them telling you.

o The Placater
This person is a conflict avoider, and will tend to give up on their viewpoint to mollify someone passion about a different view. It can be more important (at least in the moment) for this person to not be the focus of a distressed person’s attention than to get their ideas on the table. They may or may not be reconciled to this. However, if they are irritated by it, they are unlikely to state that either in the moment or directly to the person they have been placating. It's easy to see how the Placater pairs with the Bully to create a dysfunctional system. The positive side is that there is a conciliatory element, a mindfulness of where others' triggers lie, and a dedication to finding was of expressing ideas and opinions that are least provocative.

o The Victim
This person’s pattern is to portray themselves as the underdog or downtrodden who is being taken advantage of. There is generally the perception that the Victim attempts to manipulate the group’s sympathies to bolster support for their position (rather than attempting to gain agreement through strength of argument). This pattern is the obverse of the Bully: where the Bully attempts to prevail through strength, the Victim attempts to control through sympathy for weakness. Both are a perversion of fair play. On the plus side, the Victim can offer the group sensitivity to people or opinions who may otherwise be neglected or misunderstood. The Victim, for example, may be voicing concerns or fears that are carried by more people than just themselves.

o The Woo Woo Practitioner
This person tends to have a New Age spin on everything, inviting a look at the deeper meaning or context of events. In the less mature version, they will tend to offer up their interpretations whenever they are inspired, with little regard to the group’s openness to hearing it. In the more mature version, the insights may be quite helpful to the group. Either way, this is generally about recognition of energy, interpretation of what it means, and/or advocacy about how this can be enhanced and better utilized to the group's advantage.

In addition to personality patterns (such as the five examples showcased above), a person can be perceived as an outlier for other reasons:

o A style of expression that is hard to understand. This may be a language issue (perhaps English is a new language to this person; perhaps they have poor language skills in general).

o A way of organizing and presenting information that hard to track. This person may approach topics circuitously and the group gets lost and/or frustrated following the bread crumbs en route to their point. (There are people who generally have straight thinking about a topic, yet that's habitually not what they voice; somehow they've developed the maddening habit of failing to disclose linking steps in what they disclose, making it nearly impossible for the group to understand how they got to their conclusion. What's worse, the speaker often thinks they've been perfectly clear and doesn't get why everyone else is so mystified.)

o Most groups emphasize rational discourse as the preferred medium of information exchange. If a person is oriented more toward emotional, intuitive, or kinesthetic knowing and sharing, this can be tough and may lead to considerable distortion and discouragement. The next thing you know, they're an outlier.

How it looks to the individual
In many cases, the roots of challenging patterns go back a long way—perhaps to childhood—and the behaviors associated with it tend to be almost automatic. It is a grooved and highly familiar role that can be interwoven with the person's self identity and hard to break out of, even if the person wants to and is making a good effort. Even though this pattern may be problematic—and known by the person that others experience them this way—they have probably learned to cope by becoming fairly armored against critical comments about their style. In a sense, this is a diversity issue: how much does the group effectively (though perhaps unconsciously) demand that people conform to behavior norms as a precondition of being listened to?

How it looks to the group
For each of the patterns above there is a system response. Often there is danger of pigeonholing, and a story arises in the group that responsibility (blame?) for what's not working lies solely with the individual. Groups tend to be oblivious to the ways in which they don't allow the individual to get out of the box into which the outlier has been consigned. If you have a group where most members are comfortable with a deliberate pace where people rarely raise their voices, how much are they willing to stretch to welcome a passionate Italian who talks double speed and peppers every statement with exclamation points and hand waving?

How much can the majority ask the outlier to move toward the middle; how much can the outlier ask the group to stretch the circle to include them? it's a dance.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Laird, my friend, you have a wonderful grasp of group, and individual, dynamics! I sure wish we had bought property closer to you guys. I certainly tend to be an 'outlier' in these parts. 8)