Articles > Nerd Power

Nerd Power
Globe & Mail, July 25, 2008

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Remember that boy in high school who was so socially awkward? He always said the wrong things, was painfully self-conscious, had few friends and was maladroit at every activity. In a word, he was a loser.

Ever wonder what happened to him? There's a pretty good chance he's now chief executive officer of his own highly successful startup business, a well-known consultant or head of a think tank.

And that gawky girl, who was all thumbs, impossibly skinny and never got invited to the prom? Now, she may well be a leading medical researcher, award-winning landscape architect or cover-girl model.

We've all known our share of nerds and oddballs. They come in many varieties but what they have in common is that they all seem somehow off, not quite like everybody else. And, sadly, it's not just in high school where they are dismissed; many also find it difficult to navigate much of the working world.

But that movie didn't bear that title for nothing. Revenge of the Nerds aptly captures what Bill Gates, Woody Allen, Steve Jobs, Bette Midler or Joan Rivers know from experience: Sometimes not fitting in can be the best asset of all.

Some oddballs are awkward, introverted types: socially graceless, task-focused, seemingly insensitive to the others' feelings. They are the ones who often rush in where others fear to tread, making direct comments that can be startling in their honesty, not even realizing that they are saying what others wouldn't dare say.

Others are loud, sometimes obnoxiously so. They tell slightly off jokes, find amusement in quirky things that go right by others, and make observations that seem to come out of left field. Like the introverts, they will often say what others are thinking but would never say out loud for fear of embarrassing themselves or others.

And then there are the overbearing, extroverted types who somehow don't quite seem to fit in, either. They may be exhibitionist in their speech, using unedited, dramatic and colourful language. They may also dress flamboyantly in a "look at me" style. When they have something to say, they can't repress it: in their mind, on their lips.

These would not seem to be characteristics for success, but many such oddballs do in fact succeed - although often not in conventional ways.

Take the first archetype, the awkward introvert. Sure, others may say their communication skills are poor, but what they lack in finesse, they may more than make up for in originality. Because they are less tied into group norms, often unaware of what is even acceptable, they're less likely to conform to group think. It's not so much that they think outside the box - they just don't see the box at all.

The result is that they are often creative, inventive and good critical observers. Their directness can also be an asset because it is so disarming, and cuts through much of the BS.

By rushing in where others would tiptoe, and asking pointed and penetrating questions, they often reveal the tough and important truths, finding out things that are critical to success but would normally take a lot of beating around the bush to discover.

The second type - obnoxious ones - are also disconnected from group norms, resulting in them saying the unthinkable and behaving in unconventional ways. But they, too, will often get to the heart of matters and make observations that seem to come out of left field but are really home runs.

Take a friend of mine, a former vice-president of human resources for a bank who died a couple of years ago. He was loud, scatological, told off-colour jokes, had a laugh that could be heard five buildings away, played pranks on senior management and, when dressed for an important meeting, looked like his mother had put him in his church suit.

Yet, at his funeral, one senior manager after another told stories about how it was precisely because he was so different that he had the capacity to see and say things that nobody else dared to. He helped them see through very complex problems to get to the heart of the matter. Many said that he had been their most important mentor.

The third type - overbearing extroverts - can be annoying because they are so relentlessly "out there." Nevertheless, they can be a lot of fun in an office, a charming and welcome respite from the constipated suits. Because they are so outspoken and unfettered by social conventions, like the other oddballs, they can often fast-forward conversations to get to the point quickly.

And their use of their compelling language can also be an asset, leading them to make compelling cases and making them very effective at influencing and persuading others.

Yet, sadly, most organizations today, despite their lip service to cultivating diversity in thought and creativity, actually have little tolerance for oddballs. And that often makes it tough for them to thrive in organizational settings.

It's not that their personalities don't have their downsides: Those who are too over the top risk making other people feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. They may miss nuance, they may not dress the part, their out-of-left-field comments and observations shorn of sensitivity to the feelings of others may grate and their directness can be disturbing.
Certainly, they can be a challenge to manage because they are less easily influenced and moulded and may not fit well with the team.

And that's why so many of them find their success when they work outside of traditional corporate environments, for example, in their own businesses, in a lab or in a boutique professional firm, where they can become valued and thrive for their expertise despite their lack of interpersonal savvy.

But organizations make a mistake in so easily dismissing them. They have much to offer precisely because they see things so differently - even if they package their insights in ways that may be irritating to others.
Saying what is unpopular is often the impetus for significant change. Fast-forwarding conversations to get to the heart of a matter, being the conscience of an organization, acting as the champion for doing the right thing - these are all qualities that contribute to organizational effectiveness.

Indeed, organizations looking for recruits might well want to take a page from on-line retailer Zappos, which, according to a recent Globe and Mail story, puts potential hires through an interview in which they are asked such questions as: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird do you think you are?" The weirder, the better.

And oddballs take heart: There is a phenomenon in social psychology known as idiosyncratic credit, where people who demonstrate their value suddenly start to get away with, even be admired for, things that once would have been seen as liabilities.

Once they got to know my friend and what he had to offer, for instance, he was no longer dismissed as a kook who wore mismatched shoes; rather, he became seen as the odd but smart guy who sometimes wore mismatched shoes. It was part of the package.

And if you have to work and fit into the organizational world, it wouldn't hurt to package yourself with a few oddball qualities.

You may have to act like an insider - but you can still think like an outsider. You may have to be sensitive to group norms - but you can still take your own counsel. You may have to work with the group - but you can still speak up like an individual. You may have to edit some aspects of your personality - but that doesn't mean you have to hang up that personality at the corporate door.

The most effective people know just how far they can push the envelope. And next time someone casts you as an oddball, maybe you should consider taking it as a compliment.