Part II - Rewarding Positive Deviance

In Part I, “Be Yourself – Everyone Else Is Taken” - we stressed the importance of embracing your uniqueness on your path to success.

As we experience 21st century demographic and technical transformations in the workplace, one important adjustment that leaders can make is to acknowledge and reward positive deviance – both formally and informally. 

In a community, the collective actions of each member define the culture of the group. Well, almost. There are usually a few outliers – those who stick out, swim upstream, and tend to succeed against the odds. They are the positive deviants. They “tend to think and act well in advance of where the organization wants to go, and are already practicing many of the attitudes, behaviors, and business processes these functions want to achieve as a result of … [their] cultural change initiatives.”[1]

The three criteria for positive deviance are as follows:

  1. Voluntary behaviors
  2. Significant departure from the norms of a reference group
  3. Honorable intentions

Positive deviants are usually right in front of us. They are “invisible in plain sight.” Think about the recruiting brochure for your company. It’s probably filled with glossy photos of employees playing softball, teammates eating lunch together, climbing clubs, theatre troupes, and bowling outings. Who are the people that organize those outings and groups? Often, it starts with one single passionate employee, who puts together the sports league schedules, sends email, sets up a web site, and follows up with team members. He or she is your positive deviant.

And it’s likely that none of that which they do here – the stuff that makes a team or company a great place to work - shows up in a performance evaluation for them, despite the huge impact it has on the quality of work life for everyone.

For example, a typical mentor may contribute 12-40 hours a year helping one or more mentees with virtually no formal recognition in the company rewards process, and likely no reduction in their own workload to accommodate for that time investment. They do it to give back, to give to others. These people help one another as an organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) for the benefit of the group and to help others.
This unrewarded positive deviance stretches beyond informal activities and can take the form of new creative methods by which an employee meets his formal performance goals. He or she may have the same end result on paper come review time but often how the positive deviant got there (perhaps by bringing others along the way, or developing sustainable methods) can be better in the long run for the company, but unrecognized.

Despite the relative informality around how it grows, and is promoted, "positive deviance has profound effects on the individuals and organizations that partake and benefit from such activities"[2] and “A growing number of scholars believe positive deviance may be important for promoting subjective well-being and long-term organizational effectiveness.“[3]

Positive deviants often do not even realize that they are doing anything unusual or noteworthy. They work alongside their peers and flourish in their area of passion.

These employees are intrinsically motivated to an extent, but better formal recognition will create a culture where positive deviance thrives and is more readily accepted.

Time and time again leaders find that deep innovation can't be taught or controlled – but it can be sparked or catalyzed. One way to jump start innovative behavior is to encourage, acknowledge, and reward positive deviance. This requires “an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in a community, there are people (Positive Deviants) whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite having no special resources or knowledge.”[4]

“Managers must actively look for those extraordinary successful groups and individuals, and bring the isolated success strategies of these “positive deviants” into the mainstream… [And] current best practice change management methods are not good at realizing this.”[5]   Neither are best practice rewards methods.

In growing corporations there will inevitably be a trend, at some point, towards standardization – in processes, titles, rewards and methodology – that is natural as an organization grows and matures – even though it inhibits risk-taking and experimentation.  As this evolution takes place, it becomes more and more important that positive deviance is embraced, communicated out and rewarded.
If a team has done something successful – technically, organizationally, with management, morale, etc., there are typically outlets for sharing best practices - but preparation and delivery to share comes at the expense of the individual, who often must forsake his or her own job, or more likely, work extra hard, in order to help the company by sharing. 

These “positive deviants”, whose practices and success stories we acknowledge, should be explicitly rewarded – and encouraged through more than just a circumstantial acknowledgement with an “atta boy or atta girl” email. This should be part of a formal reward and recognition effort and called out deliberately by upper management, and rewarded accordingly.

Some quick ideas to get started in embracing positive deviance

[1]A Scientific Model for Grassroots O.D., Seidman McCauley

[2]Spreitzer & Sonenshein. 2004. Toward the Construct Definition of Positive Deviance. University of Michigan Business School, American Behavioral Scientist.

[3]Understanding the Impact of Positive Deviance in Work Organizations. Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

[4]Sternin, J., & Choo, R. (2000). The power of positive deviancy. Harvard Business

[5]Pascale and Sternin (2005). Using Indigenous Change Agents. Explanation of Positive Deviance



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