Who are the ‘Outliers?’

Written by guest blogger, Dr. Lee Meadows 


The introduction of the Bell-Shaved curve into the world of ‘explanations’ for human behavior, created room in which scholars and schemers could find common ground in which to dive into the personalities of those whom they liked and dismiss the ones whom they don’t understand so they don’t have to like. When behavioral science wandered into the workplace, it provided a necessary platform in which to help leaders find alternate and less offensive methods for motivating the people to whom they pay a salary. Consequently, the broader range of the behavioral continuum can be whittled down to a ‘Meets Expectations’ as the specific description for most of what people do most of the time with most of the resources they have.

It’s an element of conformity that keeps an organization stable, however, in doing so the tendency is to ignore that group of employees who operate on the fringe and represent that one consistent, nagging pain that most managers would just as soon Aleve. These Outlyers have the unusual ability to connect, seemingly, unconnected ideas in ways that result in product differentiation (has anyone noticed the Emoji Chia Face?), cutting edge social programs or cost cutting methods that ease the strain on tax payers.

Outlyers don’t fit into a certain gender, race, orientation, culture or socio-demographic pattern that is easily viewed so as to make for quick avoidance. Their ideas start at a 90-degree angle and make a left at Albuquerque and when the dust settles, there’s a daily transport programs for pregnant women utilizing church buses that sit, relatively, unused through the week, there’s a digital chip that eliminates the use of film for a camera, there’s a new pizza topping doing well in an already crowded consumer market, there’s a flashlight at the end of a pen or a Dick Tracy watch that actually does what the comic strip intended. The offbeat thinking that goes with innovating on existing ideas, while not the total domain of the Outlyers, time and research points to their culpability more often than not. Despite best efforts to reel them closer to the safety and comfort of the Bell-shaped curve, like deep water fish, they fight to maintain their independence and freedom because they know there are more ideas that need to be connected and more ways of solving unconventional problems. It is the gift that most leaders curse.

Life on the workplace fringe has its dangers for Outlyers. They, always, run the risk of being seen as the first wave of disposable’ cubiclites’ when the organization has to make difficult human capital decisions. Who speaks for the Outlyers when the ‘insiders’ control the diminished resources? Criticism abounds when, given the chance to bell-curve their behavior, they chose to stay on the outer edges crafting ideas, challenging conventional wisdom and asking too many questions. What remains is an unappreciative mindset that is unwilling to see beyond the scope of the behavior and never examining the depth. In turn, Outlyers are less inclined to deterred by the misunderstandings of others and harness their energy toward making a difference whether people want them to or not. They know that it is not enough to have an idea, aka life underneath the bell-curve, but there has to be willingness to chase the idea, catch it, wrestle it into submission, craft it and bring it to life by way of a sustainable implementation plan. In this way, they move farther away from the curve and occupy space on the fringe. So, they look and sound like something completely out of the ordinary and it is in this way, they become invaluable to resistant attempts by the organization that chooses to bask in the underbelly of the curve.

Dr. Lee Meadows is a Professor of Management at Walsh College and Consultant to Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce.