Weird at Work

Posted by jlubans on July 28, 2015

Caption: Maestro of weird.

“Weird is good”, says Suzi McAlpine, a leadership coach, in a recent article. Her subtitle: “Why dissonance fosters innovation”.
She proposes that instead of rejecting that which strikes us as weird, we try to understand its meaning and why it effects us the way it does. That acceptance and reflection may result in indirect solutions to problems or inspire us to move in another direction, away from the same old, same old way of doing something.
She provides an example, “The Rite of Spring” ballet. When first performed, it was so upsetting, so weird, that half the Paris audience threw vegetables at the orchestra and shoved and punched those who disagreed with their opinion. Figuratively, I see something similar occurring whenever an organization of people confronts radical change. The Rite was different yes, and only a few – if any - knew they were part of a wrenching separation from the past to the modern. “(For) many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.” A hundred years later, at the anniversary performance in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées - the same theater in which it was first performed - one critic anticipated the audience will “convene to celebrate ‘one of the great aesthetic monuments of Western art — completely assured, startlingly original, brutal, tender, and altogether wonderful.’"
Well, ever the contrarian, I have to ask what’s happened to make this audience more accepting of what was “weird” a century ago; how did this audience move from denial and refusal to being demure and appreciative? Or, is the audience – we - any better now in dealing with change? Or does change so different, so weird, require a century before it is seen as something other than "puerile barbarity"?
I doubt that Ms. McAlpine is suggesting that simply courting weirdness is an “open Sesame” to a new way of looking at things. Some weird is best ignored – the bare chested man in the city park with the snake coiled around his neck is just what he is – there’s little there to inspire creativity, more likely creepiness.
Now that’s not what I would say about the depicted Salvador Dali’s art. While Dali exploited shock and awe as effectively as any artist in his lifetime, his genuine art did change our perspective, and I would suggest in a largely positive way. McAlpine’s point I think is that we need to be sensitive as to why we are repelled by the weird and try to move past the initial response – like the knee jerk violence of those music fans at the first performance of The Rite – to a greater understanding and appreciation for what is happening and why. The challenge is knowing when to accept and reflect since some weird is just weird, just like some radical change ideas are delusional. A metric I use is whether the outcome from a revised perspective will result – in organizational speak – in better customer service and greater productivity. Doing something so that the staff feels better about their jobs – with no tangible improvement - is not worth doing.
Some readers might say I am no stranger to weird. Yes, I am happy to go with the eccentric any day vs. staying in the safety zone, in the comfort zone. Leaving the safety zone, accepting the unknown, has often resulted in highly positive results.
Most of my essays, training workshops, and teaching incorporate the “strange”. That can backfire, as one dis-satisfied participant in a Texas team-building workshop let me have it with both barrels. I had the group do something with balloons and several in the group were not following the rules, but no one, including me (deliberately), was calling the unethical behavior. The disgruntled participant upbraided me later and demanded why I did nothing about the cheating. She signed herself a “Tall Texan.” No doubt she saw me as little more than a “burbling pixie”* since I failed in her eyes to repair years of dysfunction in this organization in my 7 hour workshop. What she saw was weird to her. More weird to me was her not calling what she saw as chronic cheating, not only in the workshop, but, as she explained to me, throughout the organization. A little reflection on her part might have resulted (from this weird little game) in the organization’s first-time-ever honest discussion about its ethics.
I rely on experiential learning to explain and augment leadership, management, and teamwork concepts. I am among a very few teachers of management in library schools to use experiential activities. Certainly, many use team projects but I know of no one else who uses group activities, at least not to the extent I do.
I’ve culled and adapted my problem-solving adventure “initiatives” from the many “new games” created dating from the 60s: Egg Drop, Bibliofoon (now Book Chain), Mirage, Pyramid, and Frenzied Fun and Facts.
Each of these activities can be done and discussed inside 30 - 40 minutes. (A note of caution: these require space and movement. And these activities are often “strange”, even weird, in a university culture that is hard-wired for lectures and textbooks under a highly formal relationship between student and professor.)
The value is to be found in the “debrief” following each activity; that’s where we overcome the “weird”. Step by step we look at the activity and what happened; then we explore “What I learned about myself and the group during the activity”; and, finally I try to get answers to this question: “What will I use/apply personally from what I did and saw?” As these types of teaching/learning experiences are new and fun (and weird for a few like the Tall Texan), it is important to emphasize the learnings, to allow students time to think, reflect, and discuss what has been learned. That’s how the weird becomes less off-putting and more familiar so that personal lessons can be learned.

*A denigrating appellation assigned to P. G. Wodehouse, by an un-amused critic of “serious” literature. Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest humorist writer of the 20th Century, used the “burbling pixie” to good effect in contrasting the two genres and ridiculing the critic’s pettiness.

© John Lubans 2015

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