Genius or Idiot?

Sep 25, 2010 No Comments by

As I watched Director Oliver Stone talk about his new “Wall Street” movie this morning I could not help but be struck by how polarizing some public figures can be… (perhaps intentionally?)

At least one famous cell phone user is back in business.

Within the last few days I’ve noticed these solid candidates for the Prince & Princess of Public Polarization for the week:

  1. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming that the United States government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks for their own economic and political benefit. <WSJ link>
  2. Jimmy Carter saying that his role as a former president is “probably superior” to that of a sitting US President. <MSNBC link>
  3. Retired Mega-CEO and “Straight From the Gut” author Jack Welch claiming that President Obama’s economic policies are “anti-business”. <CNBC link>
  4. Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell talking about a witchcraft-themed first date that made people on both sides cringe so badly that the debate even offended Wiccans. <CBSNewslink>
  5. Entertainer Katy Perry’s Sesame Street sing-along with Elmo being dropped by PBS after angry parents complained that her outfit was inappropriate for a kid’s show. <MTV Link>
  6. …and the list goes on…

What Does This Have to Do With My Team?

These examples reminded me of the challenge people, teams and organizations face from the less well-known, but potentially aggravating egos we have to deal with daily within our organizations and projects.  How should we handle these players? Can we leverage their instigating personalities for the team’s benefit?  What risks do they present?

The Downside of Divas: What risks do polarizing characters present at work? While workplace Polarizers probably will not rise to the level of public awareness that these newsy characters have, they still present a significant risk to your productivity.  The most obvious threats include:

  • They might blatantly challenge team leadership if their “pet issues” are not resolved in their favor.
  • They could alienate those who do not agree with them and spread their polarization throughout the team by forcing people to “choose sides”.
  • Sometimes they are perceived as putting their own egos ahead of team goals and by doing so they encourage others to be anything but “team players”.
  • They can sink team unity and undermine the goals of the group by questioning its foundational purpose, process and the climate for human interaction.
  • They sometimes push other teammates into very uncomfortable situations where they may react in unpredictable ways.
  • I have seen quieter, less extroverted team members actually LEAVE a project or exit the organization entirely just to escape a work environment which they see as hostile.

The Upside of Instigation: What can we gain by engaging and even encouraging Polarizers?  If the list above hasn’t scared you off yet, here are some of the potential benefits that these opinionated players can offer your group:

  1. They draw out underlying issues that may otherwise be seen as too sensitive or extreme to even be discussed.  In this way, they make it safe to talk about things that would in most cases remain under the surface.
  2. Polarizers sometimes enjoy acting as a magnet for negative feedback – saving others from the distraction it can represent.
  3. These folks often suggest controversial innovations which would otherwise be unspoken and unavailable for leveraging.
  4. If you believe the axiom that “any press is good press as long as they spell my name right”, then you will appreciate and benefit from the attention Polarizers draw to themselves and thus to your efforts.

    Sometimes the instigator is the boss...

What to Do?: So do the benefits of engaging polarizing people within your team outweigh the dangers?

Or could enabling their behavior do you more harm than good?

I suggest you consider these guidelines…

Pull in the reins if:

  • Their behavior raises the actual risk of hostile workplace complaints
  • Their activities could likely draw you into legal problems
  • Their leadership play clearly threatens the overall goals of the team

Encourage them if:

  • Your team really needs their instigation to help them think “outside the box”
  • Team leaders have enough of a working relationship with the Polarizer that their own role is not threatened.
  • Goals of the group are moved forward by their innovative insights with limited exposure to the risks listed above.

Some would argue that politics is just a fancy form of sorcery anyway...

So… Workplace Polarizers can be a very real danger – but they can also be dealt with and even leveraged.  As for the public Polarizers I mentioned up front – they have clearly decided that the potential downsides are worth the predictable negative reactions. You can count on the fact that they’ll go on “creating news” via the United Nations, Hollywood, CSPAN, Twitter and Facebook, every 15 minutes on cue…


Questions for Chatter:

  1. How can you tell if a polarizing figure has “stepped over the line”?
  2. What’s the most appropriate reaction we should have to polarizing characters?

Change Agent Skills, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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