The Two Types Of Behavioral Outliers And How They Affect Your Corporate Culture

Over the past couple of years, The United States Federal Reserve has been conducting an annual stress test program with banks. The intent was to determine whether their capital positions could hold up under extreme market conditions. The test determined whether the company had enough capital to sustain loss scenarios. Last year, 4 out of 19 banks failed this test.

As someone who helps companies proactively manage culture, I wondered how a "stress test" could apply to today’s company cultures. Company culture is defined by the employees that make up an organization, along with values and behaviors set by senior management. The end goal is a culture that fosters stronger business performance. However, sometimes employees’ extreme behaviors test a company’s culture.

We have all encountered employees that exhibit poor cultural behaviors in our workplace. They are the challenging, unpredictable personalities that follow their own agendas. For example, you may have a colleague who puts ethics aside and does whatever it takes to meet his sales numbers. On the other hand, we also experience the employees who live the company values and serve as a model to others. This is your colleague whom everyone looks up to, as he or she effortlessly delights everyone while producing fantastic results.

These are the employees at the top and bottom of the behavioral scale. And while they are markedly different from the middle zone of employee behaviors, they may be the key to the strength of your company culture.

So what if these people, the outliers, are that stress test of your company culture?

The term "Outlier" has been in existence for quite some time, long before it attracted attention following the release of Malcolm Gladwell's book.

In the statistical world, outlier is defined as "one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs." Gladwell took this term and leveraged it to illustrate his observations regarding high achievers who excel in our society. I took a slightly different approach, applying this term based on what we know about today’s workforce–-and their impact on company culture.

I examined both the people who are the highest of performers (those who exhibit desirable behaviors according to senior management) as well as those workers who exhibit less than desired behaviors yet still may be very strong producers.

Let’s call them Behavioral Outliers.

Behavioral Outliers can be divided into two different "types" that have markedly different impacts on the organization: The Positive Behavioral Outlier and The Negative Behavioral Outlier.

The Positive Behavioral Outlier is the smart, charismatic employee who produces and behaves well above the organization’s expectations. They excel and are often great role models. This person can be viewed as the star that consistently performs with outsized contributions. They are truly beloved in the organization.

For the positive outlier, the level and frequency of recognition and appreciation they receive for their outsized contributions shows them—and their colleagues—the type of work that is valued. They are embraced for how they embody the corporate values.

While also delivering results for the business, the Negative Behavioral Outlier is a huge management challenge and can be a serious liability. They often exhibit extreme self-interest and disrupt corporate collaboration and processes with no concern for company values and morals.

The negative behavioral outlier’s success is contingent upon the company culture for "enabling it." Negative behavioral outliers can’t do it alone, and the type of success they achieve depends on what is encouraged, supported, or tolerated throughout the organization.

When management allows this type of behavior to proliferate, the damages can be far reaching. In fact, research from Singapore Management University explains that "deviant behaviors" initiated by employees can cost organizations billions of dollars per year. Many companies struggle with balancing values and profits—they seek higher profits, but at what cost?

Looking at both the positive and negative outliers, their success within a company can be traced back to the company’s culture (and how each are handled). The potential impact on the rest of the workforce and especially on overall company culture can be enormous. For example, should co-workers be forced to deal with the alienation and clear lack of a "team approach" for the sake of profits? In the long run, does this do more harm than good?

Here are three simple tips for creating a positive culture that is inclusive of any type of outlier.

  1. Identify your culture and reinforce your values: Regardless of the positive or negative outlier, it is imperative that organizations develop a company mission and values. Reinforcing and recognizing these attributes on a daily basis will provide a direction for outliers and, ultimately, help them define their role within the corporate structure—or not.
  2. Cultivate a global culture of appreciation: While a negative outlier may bring a level of competition and aggressiveness to the table that management thinks is healthy, it can also be detrimental to those around him. By creating a culture of appreciation that reinforces the company’s stated values, senior management is able to more clearly define expectations and measure employees against desired behaviors.
  3. Communicate constantly, walk the talk: Communication is critical to managing any type of outlier. It’s one of the more underestimated keys in management. Leadership should consistently communicate acceptable behaviors and then be in front of the workforce towing the party line. If management doesn’t walk the walk, outliers assume the rules are negotiable.

In my next column, we’ll focus on ways that management can encapsulate the Positive Outlier and leverage these behaviors as a trump card for developing a winning corporate culture that rewards good behavior, promotes productivity, and ultimately delivers success and profitability.

Eric Mosley (emosley@globoforce.com) is CEO and co-founder at Globoforce, a leading provider of employee recognition solutions, which is co-headquartered in Southborough, Massachusetts and Dublin, Ireland. He is also the co-author of the book, Winning with a Culture of Recognition.

[Image: Flickr user Ray Sadler]

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