Positive deviance

June 27, 2008

Back in college. (9 days out of the last 13. I love college, I really do, but this can be over nao plz?)

Yesterday was a high point, though – positive deviance! I got very excited just hearing the name. (Be quiet at the back.) I texted SJ to say, ‘We are studying positive deviance!’, and got the reply, ‘Is that something in statistics?’, which just shows what happens when you work with accountants.

One of my stories about my fifteen years of corporate life is that people didn’t want star-shaped pegs, only identical round pegs with the points rubbed off. So this space is personal for me, and I filtered the seminar through my own feelings and experience.

Positive deviance is defined to be ‘intentional behaviours that depart from the norms of a referent group in honourable ways’. Spreitzer and Sonenshein, who work on this, acknowledge that ‘at first glance, positive deviance appears to be an oxymoron’, and that we are taught early that deviance is bad. Our lecturer suggested that organisations do not distinguish between positive and negative deviance, and that organisational systems are set up to keep people within norms and preserve the status quo.

This resonated with me. It’s why I’m here and doing the work I do – because I’ve seen so many people silenced and sidelined for not fitting within organisational norms, people who have so much talent and passion to offer. So I am heartened to learn that someone is studying the value and benefits of differing from the norm. It’s relevant for my life, and it’s relevant for my beliefs about people – that we all have unique strengths and that we’re at our best when we are able to use them. In other words, we are all star-shaped pegs.

I became very interested in the idea that positive deviance is ‘intentional’. I always deviated from the organisational norm – but was this intentional? Or was it just acting out? I always find it hard to see the middle ground between ‘I am a misunderstood star-shaped genius surrounded by unbelievers’ and ‘no wonder I was never valued and rewarded; I was acting and reacting like a six-year-old’. The answer, probably, lies somewhere between the two. But I can’t say it was intentional.

Spreitzer & Sonenshein write about the personal qualities that enable positive deviance: meaning, courage, self-determination, focus on the other, personal efficacy. I’m not going to write about these in detail, partly because this post is already too long and partly because I am not yet sure what I think. But these are all qualities that I would like to have more of, and I don’t doubt that they would increase my effectiveness as an SSP in the workplace.

But I have questions. Is positive deviance really a property of the individual, or is it in fact a property of the organisation? How contextual is it – in other words, is a successful positive deviant able to repeat the experience in a different environment? Is positive deviance just for leaders, or can it be for the rank and file? Is it possible in any culture, or is some permission or cultural openness required?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I can probably do more than I used to believe, and less than I would like. It’s certainly not going to work if I try to do it all myself, without trying to meet the organisation where it’s at. And it’s not going to work if I sit back and wait for the organisation to discover the brilliance of my positive deviance.

I don’t know what I’ll do when I go back to work, and I guess I won’t know until I get there. I guess I’ll be working on making my deviance intentional rather than random. (This sounds so weird.) And I hope I’ll be looking to develop the enablers on the list above – especially courage. And, above all, I’ll be reminding myself that deviance can be positive, but it isn’t automatically. I have to take responsibility for making it so.

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4 Responses to “Positive deviance”

  1. dan Says:

    I really think you might gain a lot by reading some about disability studies: there, the deviance, such as it is, is not (necessarily) voluntary or intentional, but it can still be positive, and the positivity or negativity of that deviance is largely a function of the cultural embedding of the person and the organization with which they’re involved.

    I’m thinking mostly of physical disability, but even serious psych problems can be re-cast in this way, I expect.

  2. John Says:

    Positive deviance is a central tenel of complexity theory as applied to organisational change. It’s pretty central to the way i operate professionally and always has been though it’s only in the last few years that I’ve had a term for it.

  3. Francesca Says:

    I can imagine this would be very useful to you on a lot of levels.

  4. thewhiteowl Says:

    Hah, my first thought was also statistics 🙂


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