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Robert Kelsey

The Outside Edge


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How to integrate outsiders into your team


I’ve just written a book about outsiders. Called The Outside Edge, its focus is on helping outsiders understand themselves, as well as how they can succeed in a world made by insiders. 

But what about those insiders (i.e. everybody else), having to work with outsiders: perhaps having to integrate them into a team and encourage them to perform, stay on-course and achieve? Indeed, what about preventing outsiders from wrecking the painstaking team-building that HR professionals and departmental heads have invested in?

Tempted as we are to remove outsiders or misfits from any team at the first sign of rebellion, it’s unlikely to be our best move. Many outsiders are often highly-talented individuals, though with psychological issues (even “flaws”).

It’s therefore wasteful to spend our time hunting and removing misfits, although that’s exactly what too many team leaders and HR departments do. Instead of spotting and removing misfits, however, team leaders should understand them and learn how to foster their best traits. 

Understanding is the key. For whatever reason – and this can be just as often a developmental difficulty such as dyslexia or dyspraxia (diagnosed or otherwise) as it is arrogant contempt, no matter how it manifests – outsiders struggle with group norms. They’re neither born leaders nor natural followers: they’re misfits, which makes them question established structures and rules.

And that can have them condemned as troublemakers.

Yet, in my opinion, such a condemnation is an indictment on the team leader, not the outsider. If leaders see their authority as shallow or brittle, they’ll be unable to cope with someone asking questions or challenging the way something’s done. Mostly, outsiders simply want to understand the context, as well as their role within any team structure, and it’s a weak leader that views this as a threat.

Admittedly, such enquiries are often delivered with a verbal clumsiness that’s typical of an outsider (indeed, what may have encouraged their marginalisation in the first place). But it’s nearly always the leader’s reactivity – usually via public put-downs and chastisement – that results in the situation degenerating.

Outsiders will immediately think “oh no, here we go again”, which will have them in retreat: potentially behind a veneer of pride and arrogance, which are hardly traits likely to help integrate them into the fold.

With careful handling, however, such a result is avoidable. Outsiders can and want to integrate into a team, though usually on their own terms. This isn’t being a prima donna (well, not always). It’s overcoming an innate resistance of authority. Certainly, outsiders can be stellar workers: even ones that may prove to be your best, and certainly most innovative, human asset.

Here’s how:

1) Explain the big picture. Outsiders are poor at obeying orders. Yet this isn’t always intransigence. It’s just as often due to a poor understanding of the context of the situation. So ensure that all team members – and especially any likely outsiders – have a strong handle on the big-picture. Why is the team here; organised as such; working towards this goal? And why are you in charge?

2) Develop collegiate goals/strategy. Your team needs to buy into the team’s goals, which will be far more likely if they can help formulate them. And if that’s not possible – the objective’s set elsewhere perhaps – they can at least help agree the milestones and formulate the strategy. This is especially true of outsiders. Give them ownership of the goals and strategy, and they’ll work like Trojans to prove it right. Impose a strategy upon them, and their endeavour may be towards proving it wrong.

3) Establish team roles. Outsiders are prone to clash with anyone they’re working alongside, so the more you can carve out specific tasks for outsiders to undertake the better they’ll be at execution. And never put two outsiders together in a sub-team – they’ll either clash like Siamese Fighting Fish or they’ll invent something so leftfield it’ll be largely useless, and their failure to convince you will generate resentment.

4) Encourage creativity. So what role to give them? Make it the most creative task within the team. Outsiders are brilliant at thinking outside the box – especially when encouraged to do so (it’s thinking inside the box that’s the problem for outsiders). Let them loose on the inventive bit and the results could far exceed your expectations. Not only that, their enthusiasm will become infectious. Certainly, anything requiring detail or organisational skills will rarely bring out their strong suits, making the likely result chaos.

5) Delegate well. Outsiders thrive best when operating under Kenneth Blanchard’s One Minute Manager theory. This means developing a shared vision of the preferred outcome and then leaving outsiders to execute – allowing them to find their own way towards a jointly-agreed result. Obviously, this cannot be for the end objective (that’d be too much of a gamble). But it can include some adventurous milestones – perhaps those agreed with the team at the outset.

6) Keep watch. That said, strong delegation isn’t an excuse for disengagement. Even Blanchard talked of “one-minute praisings” and “one-minute reprimands” in which your charge was given feedback and direction. Two things here: outsiders can be sensitive souls so take care with the reprimands (wrap it around some positive comments); and never take back ownership of the task. Nothing deflates an outsider faster than the notion they’re simply obeying orders after “screwing up”.

7) Praise and celebrate. Outsider sensitivity means they’ll also react well to praise, which will be a key driver of their motivation (despite protestations otherwise). And, like all of us, they’ll want to win. So mark the victories – more than anything else, it’ll cement their position within the team.

4 Responses

  1. You paint with an extremely
    You paint with an extremely broad brush. In my experience, not all outsiders are “outside” for the same reason, so they can’t be managed the same way. Most important, they aren’t all creative geniuses, as you seem to suggest. Some of them are in the wrong place, and keeping them where they are will destroy your team–and the outsider–no matter what you do. Some of them aren’t up to the company or team standard and need to move on. Some of them are smart and see through the crap others miss or discount. Some are intelligent and caring and are dying to be accepted and motivated by the right “group norms” in other settings. All this to say that not all outsiders are created equal. Furthermore, it’s the insiders who ostracize those who are “different,” judging them by their standards, and often to their own detriment.

  2. Insightful and nicely written
    Insightful and nicely written! As someone who has always been able to easily integrate into teams – it was good to see some perspective from the other side.

  3. An interesting article on a
    An interesting article on a subject close to my heart. Creativity is the one area of business that is unique to an organisation and competitors simply cannot replicate it. The “outsiders” you describe are often a rich source of creative ideas and may well be leaders too.

    1. I agree – it’s just a case of
      I agree – it’s just a case of listening to all team members and seeing the unique ideas that each person can bring. The more someone realises they’re being heard the more things they’re then likely to suggest!

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Robert Kelsey


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