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Go Ahead — Be Weird at Work

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By Rex Huppke

(MCT)—What if that wacky idea that bubbled into your brain during a meeting — the one you stifled for fear others might think you’re nuts — had come out? Or if you freed the parts of your personality you keep hidden from co-workers, fearlessly letting your quirks show?

It would be hard. It would run against the societal forces that push us to the cushy, comfortable middle. But it might also be the best decision you ever made.

Weird isn’t quite the new normal, but it’s gaining traction.

Some companies are starting to see that when you encourage employees to be authentic — to not worry about seeming weird or thinking differently — good things happen. Smart ideas rise up, enthusiasm builds, satisfaction grows.

We’re entering, I hope, a Golden Age of workplace weirdness, a time when the pendulum swings away from mocking those who dare to set foot outside the mainstream.

To explore this idea, I spoke with Seth Godin, a marketing expert and author of “We Are All Weird,” which contains these two pointed sentences: “If you cater to the normal, you will disappoint the weird. And as the world gets weirder, that’s a dumb strategy.”

First, weird needs to be defined.

“Sometimes when people say the word ‘weird’ they think of the person who acts like a clown at work or they think of the silly lava lamps that they decorate the Google offices with,” Godin said. “I think that stunts and stupidity and that sort of weirdness gives the real sort of weirdness a bad name.”

Weird, as Godin sees it, is choosing to not follow “the checklist of normal,” being yourself, thinking differently and not being afraid to voice those thoughts, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

“We succeed by doing something that everyone else says will never work,” Godin said. “If you look at the people who get private parking spaces, people that the boss caters to, they didn’t get it because they followed instructions better than you. They got it because they were viewed as being indispensable at what they did. They got it because they did it with passion and skill.”

So being weird at work doesn’t mean strutting around with purple hair or elaborate body piercings. It means getting over our cultural tendency to say only what we think people want to hear and do only what we think people want us to do.

“Weird is a weird word,” says Nate Kreuter, an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University, who wrote an essay for the online publication Inside Higher Ed in January called “Be Your Weird Self.” “We’ve all had it used against us in a negative way. But what we’re talking about are quirks and idiosyncrasies.”

Kreuter gave a simple example. He has a hard time working if he’s routinely interrupted or distracted. So when grading papers, writing or preparing for a class, he closes his office door or works from home.

He said some faculty cultures would find that antisocial. But rather than conform, Kreuter was upfront about this quirk and now works better and is happier.

“Something really small like that can really have an effect on people’s quality of life at work,” Kreuter says. “That’s a little thing, but in terms of quality of life and quality of job, it’s actually a big thing.”

Beyond basic work needs and tendencies are the ways we think about things. And that, above all else, is where weirdness should be nurtured.

“In any industry, new types of thinking need to be encouraged,” Kreuter says. “That means tolerating some bad ideas and tolerating some odd ideas so we can sift through them and figure out what might be productive.”

In his book, Godin wrote: “We’ve been trained since birth to enforce the status quo. Our bias is to the many. To please the many. To sell to the many. To be organized to serve the many. We admire politicians based on how many votes they get from the many; we listen to Top 40 radio to hear what the many are also listening to. … Surprise. The weird are now more important than the many, because the weird are the many.”

How did this happen?

Our ability to communicate and connect exploded. The Internet allows weird people to find other similarly weird people, and all of a sudden being weird isn’t so scary — because you were no longer alone.

We used to all watch one of the three big network television stations and take whatever sitcom was fed to us. Now we watch shows about people who remodel bedrooms for $100 or less, cartoons about talking sponges, documentaries about World War II and virtually anything else someone throws in front of a video camera.

TV has gotten weird. And that’s good, because we all like different things and think in different ways.

And whether you have a job or are looking for one, you should embrace who you are — love the weird you’re with —view your authentic personality and thoughts as assets. Your confidence will show, and you’ll be better at what you do.

But it won’t be easy.

“If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth anything,” Godin says. “We look at people who are great at what they do, whether they’re surgeons or baseball pitchers, and say, ‘Show me the step-by-step instructions to be like that,’ and there aren’t any. The challenge here is the world is asking you to do something uncomfortable and it’s not telling you how to do it.”

You need to ask yourself questions, the first of which Godin can answer for you.

“Figure out what your problem is,” he said. “Your problem is you’re afraid to be weird.”

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppke@tribune.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.

©2012 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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