Leading Awkward People

Sam Rainer

January 21, 2013

Some people are just awkward. Awkward people are in almost every organization. The church—a place for all types—will have, by design, its share of awkward people.  As a leader, you might be tempted to avoid them (unless you are among them, but that’s a subject for another post). Too often leaders ignore awkward people in their organizations. We treat them like odd zoo creatures—they are best observed from a distance. So leaders ignore their emails. Leaders find ways to avoid meetings that include the awkward person. Leaders look the other way in the hall to dodge awkward eye contact. If you’re a top leader of an organization, ministry, or church, then it’s your prerogative to pick and choose the people you engage, right?

Sure. But awkward people need to be led like everyone else. And when leaders ignore awkwardness, it simply gets redirected at others. Good leaders do not pawn off awkward situations, awkward questions, or awkward people on others. Leadership involves delegation, but leaders can be quick to hand over awkwardness to subordinates, which is a form of laziness.

First, let me qualify my post by noting how I define awkward. Awkward people are other leaders or key followers in the organization, so they should not be dismissed entirely. Their awkwardness is neither a sin issue, nor is it a performance issue. They simply have the unfortunate combination of being both odd and high maintenance. And just because they are a less-than-ideal team member does not warrant your avoidance of them. So who are these awkward people? And how do you address them? Below are a few suggestions for leading three types of awkward people in the church context.

The quirky know-it-all. He really does know more than you. She can quote obscurities from all your policy and procedure manuals. He can pull out theological terms only the most seasoned academics have heard. And everyone just might appreciate the know-it-all’s intelligence if it didn’t always come packaged with an ample dose of fantasy literature allusions. One of the best ways to address the know-it-all’s quirks is to first acknowledge he really does know more than everyone else. Second, as a leader, you can be the filter for everyone else. Take the time to meet with the know-it-all, get the important information, and then communicate it to everyone else, while acknowledging the knowledgeable source. Your team is now happy; they’re spared the awkward conversation. The know-it-all is happy. She has received the credit.

The moderate conspiracy theorist. He brought up the Mayan calendar thing a little too much. Her conversations always shift towards a weird branch of eschatology. They aren’t crazy, but they lean a little too far that way. As a leader, you can address this person by finding a common point of agreement and emphasizing it. Coach him to stay focused on the part of his ideas that have value and merit.

The hyper-spiritualist. When the water cooler goes empty, this person finds a spiritual link. She’s a little too much granola-mystical-hipster for the rest of the team. Addressing this person is quite simple: Pray with her. When he gets a little wacky pray with him. As a leader, take the initiative with prayer to help relax the unnecessary fixations of the hyper-spiritualist. Quite frankly, you should be praying with your team anyway. Most likely, the hyper-spiritualist has more trouble finding someone with whom to pray. And don’t be disingenuous. Be authentic. Most people know when you are patronizing them.

If you’re quick to avoid dealing with awkward people, then you’re probably also willing to ignore difficult people, hard situations, and troubling questions. If all followers were ideal, and if the answers were easy, then the need for leadership would not exist. As a leader, however, the responsibility to lead awkward people first resides in you.

This post was originally published at my Church Executive blog.

4 comments on “Leading Awkward People”

  1. Debbie Bell says:

    Love this, Sam. I could actually put faces on some of these examples. We all have our quirks and awkward areas and as you reminded us, that is why we need strong and loving leaders. Thanks for the insight.

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