When Being Deviant can be Positive

My all-time favourite leadership concept is “positive deviance.” Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges (https://positivedeviance.org).

Where did this idea come from?

The concept originated as a strategy for improving the lives of children in developing countries, where top-down, global methods were failing. Even in the poorest regions, certain mothers were able to feed their children and keep them healthy. These were the deviants from the norm, though positive, from whom researches could learn and then teach others.

If you look around, you can see positive deviants thriving in all industries. Wayne Bryan, the father and coach of the best doubles team in tennis history, advises parents of aspiring players to look at what all other parents are doing and do the opposite. Play within the proper age group; stick around for consolation; play doubles; have fun. As it turns out, what we might describe as common sense is not usually that common after all.

How does it apply to your organization?

The same concepts can be applied to organizations. Positive deviants are those who seem to get things done when everybody else is either too busy or otherwise preoccupied. They never say “it can’t be done” or “it won’t work” or my favourite “we already tried it before.” When faced with roadblocks, positive deviants don’t stop to ask for permission or senior direction. They find a way around or through the impediment. Positive deviants tolerate ambiguity and are adaptable and resourceful. They don’t become victims of circumstance and don’t spend much time talking about it at the watercooler.

Who are the positive deviants in your organization? Perhaps it’s the person who circulates meeting agendas in advance. Or it’s the person who shows up on time rather than aiming to be fashionably late to portray importance. Maybe it’s the person who flies economy when the other executives are up front. It might be the person who builds trust by admitting mistakes or saying sorry.

Do positive deviants work harder and longer? Perhaps. Do they work smarter? Definitely. When you see a positive deviant, offer support and resources. Ask questions and learn. Figure out how to adapt the systems to their solutions. Whatever you do, don’t get in their way and slow them down with bureaucracy or hierarchy. Regardless, positive deviants are like eagles, they don’t flock. They have the courage to fly alone, no matter the weather.