I first came across the idea of an Awkward Squad in Sophie Henaff’s detective novel about a division of French police comprised of other teams’ rejects. The idea has a long lineage in business and the military where putting trouble together is seen as freeing others to perform. More importantly, celebrating and empowering your Awkward Squad can be a powerful step to leverage and integrate difference.
Our organisations are systems of standardisation, whether we realise it or not. As a consequence, everyday processes and interactions can isolate and alienate those whose inherent approach to work is different. What drives that difference to the standard is incredibly diverse and should be irrelevant. We cannot make people into others. We must work with their strengths and their potential.
The literature that diverse teams and organisations are better performing is clear. Diversity matters, whether it is the power of diversity to better reflect stakeholders, shatter groupthink or bring extraordinary new talents to bear on work. The best performing teams that I have been lucky enough to work with were often viewed by other teams as the Awkward Squad and then showed them how to perform.
Remember that the designation of difference is not a choice of the individual. Difference is an outcome of systems and cultural norms in the organisation. Those norms and processes drive counterproductive standardisation in the name of efficiency, ease and an unspoken inhumanity. These processes drive out the awkward.
Robots are standardised. Humans are not. The cost of driving out the different falls on everyone’s inability to express their uniqueness.
Often the only way people and organisations begin to appreciate difference is to feel and acknowledge those moment of awkwardness. Many people don’t appreciate that their experiences, perception, thinking or approaches are different until they that feel that discomfort. Many leaders are blithely unaware of the awkwardness they create. If we hide awkward, we lost the learning experience. We hide the ability to leverage difference.
Embrace your Awkward Squad in any way you can. Network people together so that those who think, act and are different can find the likeminded collaborators. Form special project teams to solve the most challenging issues and celebrate the creativity that results. Hunt for talented people being excluded by redundancy and performance management and give them another chance better suited to their talents. Be explicit that Awkward is ok, in fact, valued and great.
Buried in your organisation today is a team of talents that feels they don’t fit. They are planning to leave. That is not their issue. It is yours. They can’t and shouldn’t change who they are. It’s up to you to value their work and create the opportunities they need. Everyone will benefit.