A Measure of Your Team’s Health: How You Treat Your “Idiot”

Jun 2, 2014
8 Min Read

Every team has someone who at the bottom of its bell curve: an individual who has a hard time keeping up with other team members. By my observation, how your team members treat that person is a significant indicator of your organization’s health.

I’ve been very lucky. Over the past several decades, in different industries and roles, I’ve worked on quite a few teams that seemingly had a perfect balance of skills and personalities. That’s not to say that every project was successful – outside influences sometimes made them fail – but the experience always was deeply rewarding.

The most visible attribute of the successes was that the team members respected what each brought to the table (“He's good at this, and loves it – and boy am I glad because I hate to do it”). Everyone was conscious that we could achieve far more together than we ever could on our own; we cherished the skills of everyone else. If you've ever been part of such a team (or even more wonderful, you’ve managed such a bunch of folks), you know the sparkle I’m talking about.

Whether these golden teams were online communities, departments at work, or volunteer groups, they shared a unique characteristic: Every team had one person involved who could most charitably be described as a well-meaning dummy, and – this is the important part – the team always treated that person well.

In one volunteer group, our village idiot was Elliot. The most accurate description of the guy was “sweet but clueless.” Like a big puppy, he was always willing to help, but often got in the way. He was supportive and admired people who accomplished more than he did (which was everybody).

However, Elliot never seemed to do things right, even though he tried earnestly. There’s no way anyone would give him a critical thing to accomplish to get a project done. He never quite realized it when he handed in substandard work (such as newsletter articles I always had to rewrite; since the published articles said what he meant, he didn’t realize they’d been rewritten). Usually, Elliot would miss the point of what we were doing, even though he cheerfully followed orders from people who, he could tell, had a better grasp of the project goals and how to achieve them.

But everybody treated Elliot with kindness and compassion. The other people running the volunteer group managed him so that he could truly contribute, treating Elliot’s cheerfulness and willingness as his key strengths. Every community meeting requires someone to put away all the folding chairs, or to welcome people warmly at the registration desk. We gave him all those jobs.

He was an idiot, but he was our idiot. We’d complain about him amongst ourselves (including a lot of eye-rolling, sighing, and muttering, “Well, that's Elliot…”), but if anyone from outside had ever treated him poorly, we'd have ripped their arms off. I should note here: Elliot died, a few years ago. Everyone who’d known him in that organization showed up for the funeral. Our caring wasn’t “put up with him;” he did matter to each of us.

Ever since my Elliot experience, I've paid attention to this phenomenon. Every team, no matter how smart or how dumb, has someone at the lowest end of its bell curve (whether you measure that by IQ, productivity, or something else). Your team’s bell curve may be skewed in one direction or another (a team of scientists versus a team of landscapers, for whom “value” and “productivity” have wholly different metrics). So the person at the bottom, the “Elliot,” might be considered accomplished in another venue, but not in yours. But someone is at the bottom of the stack.

In unhealthy teams, the “idiot” is treated as an idiot. We see bullying, disparagement, unkindness – and these generate all the negatives you’d expect. But when the team appreciates diversity, things are different.

I see this positive team attribute most visibly in teams where people choose to participate: user groups, open source projects, community organizations. In those circumstances you cannot send away a volunteer for lack of qualifications, so you’re motivated to work with the willing folks who show up. Commercial teams should pay attention too, though, because we’ve all seen semi-competent people fired rather than helped to find their comfort/contribution level.

The question is: How do you – as project manager – treat your dummy? How does the team treat her?

I’m tempted to give you a list of “how to”s… but they really don’t apply. This isn’t a things-to-do post. Rather, it’s a way to take your team’s temperature. The manner in which the team members and project leader treat its weakest member is a symptom of the team culture, and a mark of its health. If you treat people well, they respond – and that always shows in the results you produce.

I’d love to hear about your experiences – good or bad – with the way you’ve seen teams treat their Village Idiots. How has it affected the business culture, as well as the team’s efficacy?

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