It’s the research you’ve all been waiting for: nobody is normal. You might think I’m trying to reassure you that you’re normal-enough to be accepted, but no, that misses the point. Everyone is unique and weird in their own way, and this is what allows everyone to function at their best as individuals.
The study is by Avram J. Holmes and Lauren M. Patrick, under the title “The Myth of Optimality in Clinical Neuroscience.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Feb 20, 2018.
The authors were looking at the complex environmental circumstances under which mental illnesses develop. There is an emerging effort to develop broad datasets that isolate what causes someone’s brain-function to diverge from the ideal mental state. About that: there’s not a single ideal mental state.
“We challenge this concept… arguing that there is no universally optimal profile of brain functioning. The evolutionary forces that shape our species select for a staggering diversity of human behaviors.”
At Inc.com, Jessica Stillman notes that “…for all but the most obvious maladaptations, there is almost always a mix or good and bad results from any given variation.”
“Take anxiety, for instance. …science shows that anxiety is probably keeping you safer, pushing you to be better prepared in important areas of your life, and improving your memory, even if it often doesn’t feel good… Or look at risk taking. If you’re a little further on the fearless end of the spectrum, your chances of suffering some life-threatening mishap are likely higher, but so are your chances of starting a world-changing company. Our strengths and weaknesses are intimately tied together.”
This research confirms what has long been understood from folklore, the humanities, and the school of life: everyone is different and we need to honour and cherish these differences.
Now that there is data to back it up, can we assert this wisdom more boldly? I think we can and should. There are profound implications for emerging workplace issues such as equity and inclusion, work-life balance, wellbeing, and performance management.
Equity and Inclusion
The research brings depth to the thinking around equity and inclusion. Looking at demographic traits is one window into the ways in which totally arbitrary types of people get ahead while others are left behind. If we want everyone to be at their best, we must strive to open our definition of what “best” looks like, be it sex or race or personality profile. If there is a “type” who is tapped or favoured because they fit the mold, we need to step back and consider if we are being drawn into a bias, be it conscious or unconscious. We need to look beyond types, consider the individual, and brace ourselves for plenty of surprises about who’s going to rock it, and how.
There are also implications for work-life balance. As employees go through major life events there may be special moments when they are a perfect match to your workplace. But their home lives are important, and personal lives beckon for time, attention, and commitments.
Striking the balance is key in supporting employees to show up in their best form and deliver their best strengths. That balance hinges on allowing everyone to be themselves both at work and at home. Sometimes an employee’s workplace personality brings differences in what they can deliver. And sometimes an employee chooses a home life that allows them to be their best. Don’t make them choose between the two, they’re busy being themselves.
With wellbeing efforts, every high-functioning workplace needs to evolve beyond claims-cost-reduction and mandatory anti-bullying courses. If a workplace has developed a strategic and holistic sense of why they are advancing wellbeing, they are likely to happen upon the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health. That definition emphasizes that to feel “well” people need to realize their potential, work productively, and make a contribution to their community, among other things. How could that be possible if the corporate standards of performance disregard the unique ways in which each person is exceptional?
Performance Management and Competencies
This research raises questions about performance measurement against prescribed competencies. Yes, employees need to deliver outputs at the right levels of quality, cost, and timeliness. Yet the more specific we get about the kind of excellence expected, the narrower the opportunities for people to excel.
Competencies were originally put forward as a cutting-edge practice that blended skills and attitudes that employers wished people would deliver in their style of daily work. Competencies allowed employers to get beyond people-as-machines applying skill and effort to the tasks specified in the job description. But there is a flaw. Top-down descriptions of desired competencies undermine the ability of individuals to define their unique strengths from the inside-out.
As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all.
If people are to flourish, they need to be coached to identify their unique talents, develop their own learning objectives, and deliver work in a way that allows them to grow into their exceptionalities. We need to recognize what is great about each person, anticipating that there may be a downside. As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all. In order to develop people for their best growth we need a workplace culture of trust, sympathy, and encouragement.
By contrast, exercises where we score people against a half-dozen competencies sent down from corporate seem hopelessly archaic. Allowing a privileged few to define themselves as excellent and encourage others to play along seems narcissistic and biased. And telling others to achieve life-balance and wellbeing according to the standards of those with power reveals an antipathy for wisdom.
So spread the word: everyone needs to get their freak on. If people can know themselves and be themselves, they’re far more likely to deliver the goods.
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