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How to manage outsiders


How can you manage an outsider? Get that wrong and you may have a disruptive presence on your hands – one ultimately requiring removal. Get it right, however, and he or she could become your most innovative and productive employee. Robert Kelsey gives us a few words of advice.  

I was an outsider. I felt uncomfortable in any group situation – feelings that reach right back into early childhood. This made me an incendiary presence in all my early careers: perhaps disguised behind jolly phrases such as being a 'livewire' or a bit of a 'personality'. Of course, I was meant to take the hint and knuckle down. Instead, I drifted further to the fringes – ultimately becoming a negative influence.

Yet it was the company that had failed by not working out how to deal with me. So here are my tips for managing outsiders.

Understand what makes them tick

This isn’t asking for special treatment. Yet, more than most, outsiders will have a back story – generating sensitivity, reactivity and defensiveness (sometimes hidden behind an arrogant or clowning mask). Tease out this story early on and they may see your management for its positive potential – as a chance to break free from their cycle of negativity.

Take care when criticising

Despite appearances, outsiders can possess heightened sensitivity towards criticism with even constructive criticism being taken as rejection. So, when giving feedback, a strong ploy is to employ the classic 'sh*t sandwich'. Here, any positives are discussed firsts, then issues are tackled (in a 'where to improve/focus' kind of way), before ending back on the positives. It’s not rocket science, but clumsiness with outsiders will have a deeper impact on more robust people, and will quickly generate resentments.

Help them find meaning

Outsiders are usually lost souls wanting to be found. That said, they’ll likely resist your overly-obvious attempts at giving their lives meaning. They need to discover their own path – something they’re classically inept at doing. Sure, this sounds like Catch 22, but it’s also a huge opportunity for anyone employing outsiders – gently guiding them towards the meaning their lives currently lack. Of course, the temptation is to convince them that the task you need executing is, lo and behold, their path to redemption. It almost certainly isn’t, and – once they’ve worked this out – they’ll hate you for your dishonesty.

Help them focus on the long term

Outsiders tend to be poor planners, which means the biggest favour you can do them is to help them chart their long-term future. No, not your future for them: their future for themselves. Hopefully, your paths will coincide for at least the medium term, and – even if they don’t – you’ve saved yourself some wasted investment, and probably won over a future external ally. Yet the strength of purpose outsiders can show when put on the right long-term path is extraordinary, so it’s worth the effort.

An important part of this damascene conversion, however, is that you harness their creative talents. And that’s tip five: help them hone their creativity. Nearly always, outsiders have a creative bent. Most think outside the box. In fact, the problem with outsiders is that most employers are forcing them to think inside the box, which is where they’re least comfortable.

More often than not, outsiders are talented individuals – meaning they could be the very people giving you your innovative edge. You can either suppress this – to get the next batch of work completed, as required. Or you can foster it.

No, this isn’t a plea for special treatment. It’s simply stating that those batches will get completed all the quicker with a workforce that can see the big picture, and themselves in it. And where even the misfits can understand how they fit in, as well as how their unique perspective can be profitably employed.

Robert Kelsey's book, The Outside Edge: How Outsiders can Succeed in a World Made by Insiders, is out in April. To win a copy, be the first to answer this question by commenting beneath.

What do outsiders’ backstories generate? 

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