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Technology & Innovation

Need a New Leadership Strategy? Give Weird a Chance.

There are some industries in which a company that embraces quirkiness can thrive and succeed on the strength of its authenticity. 

Yesterday we discussed how leaders who act a little too eager around their employees often watch their efforts backfire. Despite that lesson, it’s important to remember that maintaining professionalism doesn’t always necessitate a complete suppression of your personality. In fact, there are plenty of businesses and industries that could afford to remove the proverbial stick from their you-know-wheres.

As entrepreneur AJ Agrawal writes, there are many successful organizations led by people who have embraced their inner quirks to such a degree that “weird” has become an integral piece of the company’s brand. Online shoe seller Zappos is an example. Its refreshingly eccentric CEO (and Big Think expert) Tony Hsieh laid out a wide swath of unusual company policies in his book Delivering Happiness. The binding element to everything Zappos does is that it should serve both its customers and employees. Authenticity and company culture are priorities number 1a & 1b for a business that brands itself as the happy online shoe seller.

Of course, what works for Zappos wouldn’t necessarily work for a financial management group or funeral parlor. “Going weird” has to fit the industry in which the company operates. That’s just common sense.

Agrawal offers several tips for how leaders can embrace their inner weird for the benefit of an organization. The first is to be authentic with your employees, particularly new hires. The best way to get new workers comfortable within a company structure is to destabilize the anxieties that make them nervous. Agrawal recommends telling an embarrassing story about yourself during team introductions. Make the group laugh. Build camaraderie. Demonstrate how real you are and employees will follow suit.

This leads to Agrawal’s second point. It’s one thing to prioritize employee happiness for its own sake. But your goal should be for happy employees to boost the company’s performance. Embracing the quirky can lead to a stronger innovative spirit. A stronger innovative spirit leads to success. Agrawal recommends proposing wacky ideas in meetings to encourage employees to think outside-the-box:

“In rare cases, you might even want to throw out a really weird idea that you know your team will not like. This will register to your team members that their ideas can’t be as bad or weird as yours, and they’ll start speaking up more. Because you’re the leader, your employees will feel empowered when their ideas are picked over yours. Will you lose the spotlight? Sure, but your team will build enough confidence to start innovating without you.”

Finally, Agrawal explains that improving your company culture by being weird and quirky will help you identify and hire good workers who fit your company’s personality. As with any organization, it’s important to minimize ambiguity with regard to your goals and approach. Incorporating a little wackiness during a job interview, for example, will help you sort out those who fit and those who don’t.

A personal aside: I once worked for a company called Bunnyfarm* that had such a toxic company culture that people within the industry would say, “friends don’t let friends work at Bunnyfarm.” Employees were miserable, turnover was high, and it found little success in efforts to attract younger customers. I can only imagine how successful Bunnyfarm could have been if its leadership had only done away with its grave solemnity and done more to embrace the weird.

The gist of the story is that you really don’t want to be Bunnyfarm. If weirdness at all permeates what your company produces or provides as a service, you should try allowing it also to show up in how you do business. An organization that relies on innovation and creativity needs to establish an atmosphere in which both those elements thrive.

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Photo credit: Elnur / Shutterstock

*Not actually its name

For more about Zappos and a strong company culture, watch our interview with Tony Hsieh:


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