"So, what's with that new guy Chris?" Rodney asked Mark in the break room. "He acts like he's never worked around other human beings before."
Mark nodded. "Yeah, I've heard people talk about misfits, but I'm not sure I've ever seen what a real one looks like. Now I have." They laugh.
Brenda, their manager, overheard this exchange—and she wasn't laughing. She couldn't say that Mark and Rodney were being unfair; Chris certainly had a different set of social skills than most of her team members. But she couldn't afford for Chris not to fit in—his role, and his experience and skills, were too critical to the team's mission.
It's almost impossible to be on the ball when you feel like an oddball. Individual employees may not "fit in" with the rest of the team because of differences in age, sex, background or interests. Others may be avoided because they're hard to get along with.
Whatever the reason for an employee's isolation from the rest of the group, you can't afford to let it continue. Your team's overall performance depends on your ability to help all team members feel comfortable enough to do their best. Here are some steps that can help:
Include everyone in group functions—even the ones who "never" participate. That may be because they feel uninvited. Let all team members know they're always welcome to lunches, parties, sports events and other group activities—or just to sit in the break room.
Refuse to gossip. Strictly avoid negative discussions of employees who aren't present. Make sure any words that could get back to employees show respect for their feelings. While Brenda didn't counsel Mark or Rodney about their comments, she did note, "I hope you all never say things like that about me." They got the message.
Be direct about annoying behavior. Sometimes people are left out because it's easier to avoid them than confront an irritating habit. Don't waste talent that way. Approach the person privately with something like, "When you whistle, I find it difficult to concentrate." Help employees find alternatives. Thank them for making the effort to change. Be open to suggestions about changes you might make yourself.
Focus on results, not personal conformity. Make sure everyone is recognized for what they contribute rather than how they fit in. If current procedures bring team members into conflict or make individuals feel isolated, encourage people to think of ways those rough areas could be smoothed out. In subsequent, Brenda made sure that she communicated her view of Chris' importance to the team—and, just as crucially, to Chris himself. Over time, the team learned how to keep differences in personal style from getting in the way of performance.