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Why Your Team Needs Some Idiots and Maniacs

George Carlin would have been a great job interviewer.

Carlin’s comedic success came largely from his astute observations of irrational human behavior. If you’ll excuse the language, he called us all out on our bullshit.

One of my favorite sound bites (at least among those mentionable in a professional setting) is a simple observation of how we tend to think in our cars: “Have you ever noticed when you are driving, that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

It’s funny because it’s true.

It’s not as funny when we short-change our organizations’ potentials because we think that way. At least it’s not as funny to us. To competitors, it’s probably hilarious. Comedy is just tragedy that happens to someone else, after all.

When you are in the hiring process, and someone answers a question with a response that is wildly different from the way you would answer it, do you dismiss him with “this guy’s an idiot”? When you are sitting in a team meeting, and the team’s “creative” suggests an action that the organization has never tried before, is your first thought “she’s a maniac”?

If so, you aren’t alone. We all tend to think that people who don’t think the way we do are idiots, maniacs, and a host of other colorful descriptors. Depending on how different the thinking is, we may even drop an f-bomb in front of the descriptor.

The problem isn’t with this instant reaction. That’s a hard-wired, natural human response. The problem comes in the instant after that reaction. In that instant, we have a choice. We can choose to be narrow-minded and judgmental, or we can choose to be open-minded and innovative.

Bruce Vojack reminded me of this when he made a comment to an Adam Grant article about not tolerating assholes in the workplace. If you haven’t read Bruce’s book Serial Innovators (co-authored with Abbie Griffin and Raymond Price), I highly recommend it. It opens with the story of Tom Osborn, a serial innovator whose work made billions for P&G, and earned him induction into the company’s Victor Mills Society, the highest honor they offer for R&D leadership and creativity. The culmination to a rosy, glorious career, right?

Not so much. Osborn was almost canned on multiple occasions because he thought differently, leaving him to be perceived as insubordinate, difficult to work with, and damaging to the organization. I’m sure that colleagues labeled him an idiot or a manic, depending on their perspective.

Diversity of thinking, experience, perspective, expertise, and personality are all demonstrated to enhance team performance, creative problem-solving, and general effectiveness. Such diversity needs to be embraced, even if our initial response to diverse thinking is on the idiot-maniac spectrum. The only kinds of diversity that should not be embraced are diversity of objectives and diversity of values. Those two areas should be fully aligned and clearly articulated in the real mission of the group (as opposed to the BS mission statements crafted for wall-hangings featuring pictures of eagles soaring through the mountains).

Always remember, whenever you think that someone is an idiot or a maniac, that to the maniac, you are an idiot, and to the idiot, you are a maniac. Then laugh and find a way to get down the road together.

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