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She spoke at every staff meeting, making her points at length, asking questions that seemed to slow the process down. Folks rolled their eyes and exchanged knowing looks. She was at it again…

This individual was considered a low performer, or at least someone who only performed in a narrow area of expertise. She rarely proposed solutions and yet complained about problems—real or, some thought, imagined. She was desperate to make a difference and prove her worth, but her chances seemed low. She had been set aside, put on a shelf; no one was listening to her voice anymore, and the more she was ignored, the more irritating her complaints seemed to become.

And she wasn’t the only misfit on the shelf. The division, plagued by low morale and weak employee engagement, included others who had been set aside because of their behaviour and attitude.

In a last-ditch effort to improve the culture of the division, a grassroots group was set up—the Improvement Group. Many of the set-aside folks volunteered for the group, or were voluntold to join it.

Reintegration can pay off

Despite initial misgivings and cynicism, the Improvement Group set to work. They established their terms of reference and sank their teeth into research and analysis. They asked, what were the root causes of low morale and engagement? What could be learned from past experiences? What small, implementable solutions might address these problems? What could be built on and amplified, what could be stopped, started, changed, or continued?

Soon the Improvement Group was firing off emails and holding lively meetings. Ideas came bubbling to the surface. The group also spread the word to their co-workers. No one was indifferent to what the group was up to next. For the first time in a long time, the misfits were being heard, and the more they were heard, the more constructive their ideas became.

The meetings continued, followed by surveys and discussion groups. Presentations were made to different levels of management to prepare for a town hall. The division started to look to group members to support the way forward. They were brought into staff meetings. It had taken only six months to reengage the disengaged. They were productive team members once more, and it wasn’t just their experience that had improved—the work they were doing had made the workplace better for everyone, even those who’d previously rolled their eyes over the misfits.

Breaking the misfit cycle

The more people are ignored, the more bitter or useless they feel, and the less useful they are at work. It’s a cycle that feeds itself. The initially slightly annoying misfit is ignored, so her complaints become louder, so she’s ignored more, so she becomes less and less a part of the team. It can take down entire groups, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and impotent.

How do we break down what happened so we can duplicate this Division’s shift?

  1. Get the misfits involved and ask them to deliver on their promise of changing the status quo. Look at establishing a structure: Terms of reference, schedules, deadlines.
  2. Allow voices of opposition, concern, and challenge to be heard by giving them a channel—in this case, a grassroots group.
  3. Make sure the group has visibility and that progress is expected and will be supported. Help them shine by assigning the resources they need to innovate and experiment. Assign a management champion to facilitate their work.
  4. Provide a forum for the group to present their work to management and then to staff at large. This is part of the engagement and management of change.
  5. Follow up on their ideas, starting with the easiest to implement.
  6. Recognize what has been achieved as an organization with the help of the group, at every opportunity.
  7. Never stop, even if progress is slow.
  8. Start the next group!

We all want to feel vital and heard at our workplace, and by providing people space to make tangible changes, you keep your workers engaged and excited, which in itself makes the workplace better—aside from whatever changes are implemented! It’s truly a win-win situation.

Have you experienced a positive transformation in your work culture? What strategies have you found to help in such a process? Have you seen misfits find their way off the shelf and become productive members of your team? Have you yourself been a misfit? I would love to hear your thoughts!