Talent development — especially in these stressful and emotional times — needs to adapt to meet the humanness of leadership. The decades-old go-to of routine, process and familiarity lacks one of the most compelling and relatable aspects of the human experience: weirdness.
The reason our talent development industry tries to keep training as non-weird as possible is because strangeness can initially feel uncomfortable, disorganized and just plain awkward. We often see thrusting participants into their discomfort zone too quickly as risky.
In psychological and neuroscience research, weirdness is also referred to as “novelty,” or something new and different. Interestingly, the current understanding of memory is that when we experience something novel in a familiar context, we can more easily store that event in our memory. A novel stimulus activates our memory center (the hippocampus) more than a familiar stimulus does. Even better, the emotional processing in our amygdala also impacts this memory formation, particularly if there is a strong emotion about that novelty.
In fact, our brains process a lot of sensory information every day. The hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge. If the two differ, it sends a pulse of dopamine to the substantia nigra (SN) and ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain. From there, nerve fibers extend back to the hippocampus and trigger the release of more dopamine. This process is called the hippocampal-SN/VTA loop. The dopamine release in a “weird” experience also makes us more motivated to discover, process and store these sensory impressions for a longer period of time.
So, how does “weird” become a meaningful and long-term part of talent development? Here are a few useful steps toward implementing weirdness into development experiences:
Seek and Foster Weird Experiences
In order to innovate, seek more weird experiences — or at least unusual-to-you experiences that you don’t typically look for. Maybe it looks like taking a field trip, virtually or in person, to an art museum to check out the contemporary art section. Maybe it looks like listening to music outside of your preferred genre or attending an open mic night. Maybe it looks like reading books and articles that are not in your usual genres. Or, maybe it looks like engaging in a new sport or hobby.
Encouraging this weirdness-seeking among your team members can give them the fuel for creating more unique and memorable experiences for learners. The process of feeling the weirdness of novelty can fuel your own creativity, and you’ll be able to lead your managers from a place of more genuine weirdness.
Solicit Champions of Weirdness and Encourage Them to Lead Unusual Experiences
Who will be your champions of weirdness? Among your team members, you likely have leaders ready to curate unique experiences. Suggest a hackathon or ideation session for new learning methods, using props, costumes, music, art, stories and games to deliver a learning objective.
Empowering people to lead with weirdness encourages experimentation and a deeper sharing of ideas — which, in turn, drives deeper connections for learners to share their own weird stories and experiences. Weirdness can serve as a platform for learning, and by becoming comfortable with the weirdness, your team members can lead by example.
Drive Authenticity Through Weirdness
When you set the stage to encourage and incorporate more weirdness and different, novel approaches for your managers and team members, you give implicit permission for others to do the same. After years of figuring out how to be a “professional,” most people are yearning for authentic leaders. You can model this behavior in your own leadership.
According to Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford and author of “Weird Ideas that Work,” “Some quirkiness makes you feel warm and fuzzy.” Authentic weirdness boosts creativity and collaboration, because employees feel psychologically safe enough to express themselves and offer different perspectives and ideas.
Very Odd Next Steps
Training development that acknowledges the elephant in the room about humanity — that sometimes we do weird things, and we’re not sure how to approach weirdness — inspires the cognitive disinhibition necessary for people to stop hitting the brakes when an idea comes up that is “too weird.” When it’s OK to be weird, our brains stop filtering, and we have more freedom to explore ideas and solutions, thereby fostering more creative insights and “Aha!” moments.
Embracing your weirdness feels authentic, relaxed and playful, which is a great space for learning. A funny thing also happens when we let down our guard: We tackle bigger and more uncomfortable challenges, and the learning becomes a bit uncomfortable —a sign that learning is working. Being weird creates an intimacy and connection in learning, which also fosters better memory and application. It helps people reveal their idiosyncrasies, their passions … and their humanity.