Printed in Training Industry Magazine

Talent development – especially in these highly 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. Thrusting participants into their discomfort zone too quickly is seen as risky. 

In various psychological and neuroscience research, weirdness is also referred to as “novelty” or something new and different. Interestingly, the current understanding around memory is that when experiencing something novel in a familiar context we will more easily store this event in our memory. Our memory center (the hippocampus) gets activated with a novel stimulus more than a familiar stimulus. Even better, the emotional processing in our amygdala also impacts this memory formation–particularly if a strong emotion around said novelty exists. 

In fact, our brains process a lot of sensory information daily. The hippocampus compares incoming sensory info with stored knowledge. If the two differ, the hippocampus sends a pulse of dopamine to the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area in the midbrain. From there, nerve fibers extend back to the hippocampus and trigger the release of more dopamine. It’s called the hippocampal-SN/VTA loop. This dopamine release in a “weird” experience also makes us more motivated to discover, process, and store these sensory impressions longer-term. 

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 out and foster more weird experiences 

In order to really innovate in the development space, seeking out more weird experiences or at least unusual-to-you things that perhaps you don’t typically seek out. Maybe that looks like taking a field trip either virtually or in-person to an art museum to check out the contemporary art section. It may be listening to music outside of your preferred genre or attending an open mic night. Reading books and articles that are not your usual reads. Perhaps it’s engaging in a new sport or hobby that seems unusual to you. Encouraging this among your team can give them fuel for creating more unique and memorable experiences for others. 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 get them to lead unusual experiences. 

Who will be your champions of weirdness? Among your team, there likely exists leaders who are ready to curate unique experiences. Suggest a hackathon or ideation session for methods that can be included into sessions using props, costumes, song, art, stories and games to deliver an objective via connecting the curriculum to the weird ideas. Empowering people to lead with weirdness encourages deeper sharing of ideas and experimentation. This, in turn, drives deeper connections for employees to share their own weirdest stories and experiences in sessions. Weirdness can serve as a platform for learning and by getting comfortable with the weirdness, your team 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, 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 realness in their 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 up different perspectives and ideas. 

Very Odd Next Steps ;P

Training development that acknowledges the elephant in the room about humanity – that sometimes we do weird stuff and we’re not sure how to approach it – inspires the cognitive disinhibition necessary for training managers to stop hitting the brakes so hard when a crazy idea comes up and is “too weird.” When it’s ok to be weird, your brain stops filtering as much and allows more freedom to explore ideas and solutions, thereby fostering more creative insights and a-ha moments in their learners.

Embracing your weirdness feels more authentic, relaxed and playful. That’s a great space to be in to be more open for learning. A funny thing also happens when we let down our guard in this authenticity, we tackle bigger and more uncomfortable challenges and the learning becomes a bit uncomfortable, which is a great signal that learning is working. Getting weird means letting people reveal their idiosyncrasies and passions and their humanity. It creates an intimacy and connection in learning, which also fosters better memory and application.