Thursday, September 1, 2011

Working Outliers, Part III

This is installment three 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.

In this series of 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 Pattern Based on Values

This person holds an extreme (in the context of the group) interpretation of one or more of the group's values and the pattern is that the group repeatedly bumps into that when working issues. The further out the position, the more work it is to bridge to it. The more frequently it surfaces, the more exhausted the group can become.

Perhaps their take on the group's commitment to taking seriously the environmental impact of its choices leads the outlier to consistently advocate for non-motorized approaches to everyday needs. While this may be a reasonable position in a group dedicated to living off the grid in a remote rural location, it is likely to come across as extreme in a group of urban professionals—and if you hear one more plea for a bicycle-powered washing machine you're going to puke.

How it looks to the individual
Assuming good intent, the outlier sees their behavior as being true to ideals, and helping the group steer clear of compromise for the sake of expediency. While aware of the effort that the group must invest in finding acceptable choices when obliged to work with this person's outer orbit input, the outlier believes they're acting in service to the group's long-term interests; they do not view their choices as selfish. The outlier tends to be frustrated with the group for either being too narrow or too short-sighted in their normal thinking.

How it looks to the group
It can be hard for the group to maintain an attitude of openness and grace if the outlier is a frequent flyer in the ionosphere, consistently pushing the group to travel where there doesn't seem to be enough oxygen to sustain consensus. Sometimes the group can appreciate how the outlier's sharply different views can help inform and deepen the consideration. More often though, the group gets frustrated with the task of bringing the outlier back down to within range of what everyone can live with. There tends to be disappointment with the outlier for not having done more of that work internally, before they spoke.

When trying to work with people espousing edge positions there is a balance to keep firmly in mind: the outlier has the right to expect the group to make a good faith effort to hear their views and why they believe they are a reasonable interpretation of group values; in return, the outlier has the responsibility to make the same good faith effort in the other direction—hearing and working with the all the views that differ from their position. These two go together and the group can get in trouble if anyone is insisting on one without extending the other.

But let's suppose you're handling this fine. What does it mean if this pattern persists? There are a couple possibilities that are worth considering. Though neither may obtain, you might keep them in mind.

First, do you have a values fit in your group? Are you solid about what your values are? Are you putting out a clear message? Are you screening prospective members appropriately for a value match? A consistent outlier pattern may reveal sloppiness on the group's part, where the outlier's values may not fit with the rest of the group. Or it may showcase value slippage, such that there isn't any longer the solid alignment you once had.
Note: if a values mismatch is revealed, it is more likely the result of everyone operating in a state of fog, rather than intentional misrepresentation—try to go easy on the blame.

Second, are you developing a culture of curiosity and bridging when the group labors over tough issues and it's necessary to work with one or more people on the edge? Maybe the group's exhaustion is more a measure of the group's brittleness and lack of a collaborative culture in heavy traffic, than a mismatch of values.

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