Sunday, September 4, 2011

Working Outliers, Part IV

This is the concluding installment 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 I've examined outlier dynamics in 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 Strategy

This is the dynamic where a person consciously chooses to participate as an outlier—someone with a position on the outer range of the group's spectrum of views on a topic—because they believe it will gain them leverage in steering the group toward what they want. That is, they will purposefully present their views more extremely, either in style or substance, than they would in private, as part of a strategy to maneuver the group to the position they actually favor.

Implied is the intent to deceive or misrepresent, for the purpose of manipulation. As you might imagine, it can get nasty if other group members believe that a person is engaging in this kind of Machiavellian behavior, as it undercuts the bedrock premise that cooperative group decision making works best when everyone contributes what's true for them and then works creatively to find the best fit from all the input. If someone is intentionally distorting their truth to gain strategic advantage this is viewed as a perversion.

Caution: While it's not difficult to define this phenomenon, it's not at all easy to tell if it's occurring. Absent an outright admission of guilt, it can be nearly impossible to prove bad intent, or to distinguish between honest outlier behaviors and dramatized ones.

How it looks to the individual
It's easy to see how a person could learn subconsciously to be an outlier because it's often an effective strategy to help get what you want. (In a recent visit to my son's family, I had plenty of opportunity to witness the limit testing tactics of my three-year-old granddaughter, Taivyn. While I think Taivyn's parents, Ceilee and Tosca, are handling this pretty well, it's not easy to be consistently patient and loving in the presence of this kind steady pressure, and thus, some kids learn that being an outlier can bear dividends. )

Many of us learn as children that it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If so, it can be hard as an adult to stop squeaking if that has proven to be helpful all a person's life.

In a more cold-blooded analysis, the outlier may be perfectly aware that they're exaggerating their viewpoint, and yet have no trouble sleeping at night. Perhaps they think everyone exaggerates and they're merely doing what everyone else does; perhaps they're addicted to the attention (and even irritation is better than being ignored); perhaps they feel justified in their practice because it's a lesson learned early in "how the world works," and only the naive and gullible show all their cards right away—the fact that others aren't politically savvy doesn't mean they should be artless as well.

How it looks to the group
While the wide range of possible pathways to becoming a patterned outlier argues for extending to them the benefit of the doubt, the group may not be feeling that gracious if folks are in a state of frustration over how much effort is being exerted to labor with the same person over and over. If it's starting to feel like the tail is wagging the dog, resentment may accumulate.

A lot depends on both frequency (how often a person is an outlier) and stridency (how much the outlier fails to demonstrate an ability to hear and work well with the input of others). The less the outlier displays either of these tendencies, the likelier it is that they'll be worked with openly and fairly by the group.

What to do?
Rather than encouraging groups to get in the habit of pausing to judge whether patterned outliers are sincere in their statements (and not overamping for effect), I have a different suggestion. If someone proves themselves to be a regular squeaky wheel, I suggest putting them on a limited-grease diet—think of it as preventative medicine, to keep the outlier from becoming a fat cat who has more power over the group than is healthy.

Note first that I didn't say a no-grease diet. I believe it will work better if the group starts by assuming good intent on the part of the outlier and treating their views with respect (so long as they're rooted in group values and not solely in personal preferences). That said, I think it's reasonable to ask all parties to learn from what occurred and to make a sincere effort to not recapitulate the same polarized dynamic the next time an issue takes the group across the same trigger point.

What this means for the individual
If the outlier pattern is based on temperament or style, I'm asking the person to take in how
challenging it is for the group to labor with it. Typically, if a group gets to a solid, balanced conclusion when working with outlier behavior, it's in spite of the dynamics, not because of them. It will be in the individual's best interest to do what they can to adapt their behavior to what is easier for the group to handle. Not only will this be less triggering for others, but the group will be impressed that you're trying to be cognizant of what works well for others, which will enhance the outlier's social capital (something that is likely to be in short supply).

If the
outlier pattern is based on values, I'm asking the person to digest how the group has been able to fully hear their interpretation and take it into account in figuring out how to sensitively handle the issue. I'm hoping that this digestion can lead to the outlier being more trusting of the group the next time this value comes into play, so that the whole conversation about the spectrum of views in conjunction with this value will not need to be replayed.

Let me give an example of what I mean. Suppose in the previous year the group considered a proposal to install air conditioning in the common house, and in the discussion it came out that most people thought it was a good idea (because it might significantly enhance the summertime usability of a valuable common asset), but one member was appalled that it was even being considered because, for them, it represented moving in the direction of bourgeois luxury and away from dedication to being a model of environmental sustainability. Suppose further that after unpacking the outlier's deep feelings about being environmentally vigilant, the group was ultimately able to come to an agreement to invest in passive cooling retrofitting of the common house employing materials with a minimal carbon footprint. While it took a while to work through all that, in the end everyone felt good about the outcome and there were excellent prospects for a cooler common house in July.

Now suppose there's a proposal for the group to increase it's fleet of cars from two to three, so that people won't have to scramble so much to get their transportation needs met.

There is a world of difference between these two potential initial responses from the person who was the outlier in the air conditioning conversation:

Option A: "This request to buy an additional car makes my soul shrivel. It says in our bylaws that we're committed to being environmentally responsible and there is no greater evil in contemporary society than our obscene dependence on gas-powered automobiles. We're selling out and I'm embarrassed to be part of a group that could bring this proposal forward!"

Option B: "As you might imagine, this request to buy an additional group car triggers my deep concerns about the environment, and I'm not having a good reaction. That said, I'm also remembering how well the group held me last year when we worked through the common house air conditioning issue, and I'm holding onto the hope that a similar thing will be possible now."

Note that I'm not asking the outlier to change their values; I'm asking the outlier to change how they express them, building on past successes in getting to a balanced place when this value is in play.

If the outlier pattern is a strategy, I'm asking the person to do some personal work. I want them to consider how their choice to be cagey is fundamentally at odds with the culture of cooperation that the group is (hopefully) trying to create. Cooperation is based on transparency, compassion, and authenticity. Offering an overstated opening statement to gain a tactical advantage for one's position flies in the face of all three of these principles. While the group may nonetheless be able to successfully navigate a false start, it's a complication and doesn't help the group do its best work.

While the outlier may be convinced that this strategy improves the chances that their preferred outcome will prevail, it does so at the expense of group trust and cohesion, and I'm asking the person to take in how costly that is to relationships as well as to group functionality.

What this means for the group
If the outlier pattern is based on temperament or style, the group might usefully examine what it can do to be less reactive to bluster, tears, hand waving, or ethnic speech patterns. Rather than punishing the outlier for not being "normal," the group can work on stretching to embrace a wider range of "acceptable."

If the outlier pattern is based on values, the group can learn (as well as the individual) from a thorough examination of the range of interpretations about a particular value. The group can anticipate that the same range of interpretations will surface again the next time that value is evoked. Rather than wait to see what the outlier does with it this time (see Options A & B above), the group can acknowledge at the outset that this range of interpretations will be a factor that the group will need to balance. This can bypass all kinds of drama that will only be a repeat performance and not particularly illuminating.

If the group suspects the outlier pattern is a strategy, I suggest taking the high road and steering clear of condemnation and outrage. I think it will be more productive if you focus mainly on how you're trying to create cooperative culture and it isn't clear to the group how the outlier is on board with the program. While the outlier has the right to be heard, that's coupled with the responsibility to work hard to hear and work constructively with the input of others, and you're not seeing how they're doing the latter while insisting on the former.
• • •
This wraps up my blog series on outliers. In addition to laying out the various ways this dynamic can present, I've tried to offer guidance on how to work with the dynamic constructively in the moment—both from the perspective of the outlier and that of the group—and at the same time set the table for everyone taking what they've learned from the current experience to make future outlier dynamics easier to navigate.

While there will always be outliers, groups have choices about how well they understand what's happening and how much they suffer from the tensions associated with the expression of outlier views, and the fatigue associated with being forced to watch reruns.

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