When is deviance a good thing?

Most people associate the word ‘deviant’ with negative behaviour. Indeed, I was once asked to remove the tagline ‘training for positive deviants’ from my training materials. The client believed it sent the wrong message. Ironically, one of the participants in that client’s group had looked up my LinkedIn profile and spotted my tagline there. “Why didn’t you mention the positive deviant thing?” she asked. Like many positive deviants, she found the term intriguing. 

So what exactly is positive deviance? And how can the concept help you – and your team – excel? 

Deviance is variation from a norm. Deviant behaviour, therefore, is behaviour which diverges from commonly accepted (or ‘normal’) behaviour. Obviously, this can be a problem – as in the case of criminal behaviour. But what about deviation at the other end of the bell curve? This results in new solutions to problems, exceptional performance and innovation. It is positive deviance.  

Sadly, many organisations do not recognise the potential positive deviance has to transform business practices. Recently I was running a leadership program in an engineering company. One of the participants said, “The laziest people sometimes have the best ideas”. His tone was dismissive, so I asked him how he actioned those ideas. His response was that he just ignored them. This is an all-too-common response to positive deviance. 

Imagine the potential of a business that capitalised on positive deviance. It would have an energised, flourishing culture. Ideas would be captured in the moment and turned into solutions. 

Diversity would not just be a concept celebrated on International Diversity Day. It would be woven into the fabric of teams. Meetings would buzz with engaged conversation. Ideas would flow and people would flourish. 

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If this image excites you, explore the world of positive deviance. Here are five simple ways to get started: 

  1. Read The Power of Positive Deviance by Richard Tanner Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin.  
  2. The next time someone proposes an ‘impractical’ idea, explore it instead of dismissing it. 
  3. Scan your business for flourishing teams. Pinpoint what they are doing differently to everyone else. Then replicate their strategies for success. 
  4. Speak up when you have ideas that break the norm. 
  5. Ramp up your diversity program and review your performance management systems. Check that they actively support those who deviate from the norm in positive ways. 

Remember that positive deviants can make the world a better place. It’s time to join their ranks! 

About the author of this article: 

Eleanor Shakiba is a master trainer. She runs workshops in positive psychology techniques such as positive deviance, learned optimism, constructive communication and positive leadership. Eleanor can help your people build a thriving business, and a flourishing workplace culture. Eleanor is the author of the Positive Psychology Toolkit for HR and L&D practitioners. She also runs a range of retreats and workshops for trainers and facilitators.