The Joy of Positive Deviance

I first heard the term positive deviance when I read Kim Cameron’s thin volume, Positive Leadership. I immediately loved the term for its irony, its spin on what we normally think of as deviant behavior. The idea that we can become positively deviant by breaking the norm and surpassing expectations appeals to the dreamer in me.

Deviant comes from the Latin “de” – from, and “via” – road. So deviance refers to being off the beaten path. It is out of the norm, forging a new path where none exists. While some who live off the main road are robbers and malcontents, others are trail-blazers, dreamers…positive deviants.

Gretchen Spreitzer of the University of Michigan and Scott Sonenshein from Rice University clarify what is meant by positive: “By positive we mean honorable behaviors that improve the human condition.” Honorable is a carefully chosen term that reflects the above-and-beyond nature of the deviant behavior that others would label honorable.

Shawn Achor, a trail-blazer in the emerging study of positive psychology, is intrigued by the positive outliers- those who are out of the norm because they chose to push through when the odds were against them, went a little further than what was considered safe, and changed the lens through which they viewed the world.

Achor says to focus “on your own lens and how you can ripple that positivity out through your work, your personality and your habits to create a more positive work environment.” we can cultivate our positive deviance by becoming more aware of possibilities and opening our eyes to limiting mindsets.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship is the hub for research in how to apply positive psychology in our organizations. Researchers like Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn, and Jane Dutton are involved in the application of POS in the real world.

In the organizational context the positive deviant challenges the status quo. Fired by a vision of what could be…what ought to be…the positive deviant swims upstream. What I learned (the hard way) is that the successful positive deviant builds coalitions whenever possible. We swim alone if we have to, compelled by a vision of what could be. But creating ripples of influence within our informal and formal networks creates energy and critical mass.

As I considered how positive deviance applied to my own field of performance Improvment, I discovered that much performance intervention is based on ambition and individual power. To introduce positive deviance requires a shift in the philosophical starting point to performance analysis from ambition to investment.

As a performance investor I become a steward of a higher purpose within the organization. I see the positive core that each individual brings to the team as well as the collective positive core. My focus shifts from problems to possibilities and I invest my time and talent to raise the success quotient so that everyone wins.

I know positivity can come across as a “peace, love and harmony” approach that has no place in the rough and tumble world of organizational politics and a driving sense of urgency. It does require a shift in ones mindset to replace the ambition-based push with an investment-based influencing conviction.

Becoming a positive deviant in any organization requires a commitment to long-term influence as it takes time to build coalitions and work the social networks. It requires determination to continue making the investment of time, energy, and personal gain for the future success of individuals and the organization.

Why Would You Want to Be the Devil’s Advocate?

Imagine you’ve just pitched a great idea to your colleagues and boss. You’ve made great points, showed data to back up your recommendations, and are sure you’ve wowed the group with your amazing solution to the problem du jour. Then inevitably the colleague you knew would oppose whatever you present raises his hand and says, “I just want to be the devil’s advocate here. What about…?” You let out a controlled sigh and concentrate to hold your eyeballs in place so no one will see the eye roll you’re imagining in your mind.

So what’s the deal with this guy? Why always the devil’s advocate role for him? Does the devil really need an advocate? Maybe a more honest statement would be, “Now I’m going to criticize your idea because I don’t like it.” The devil’s advocate isn’t looking for ways to implement your idea; they’re looking for ways to prove why it doesn’t work.

When we take on this role, and we’ve all worn the badge in some meeting along the way, we shut down any meaningful dialogue and create sides. What motivates us to squash someone else’s idea? Fear of change? Envy and resentment because it wasn’t your idea?

Those who are naturally critical may think they’re doing the group a favor by challenging every suggestion, no matter how well thought out and viable. This cat-and-mouse game is seen as sport, but in reality more harm is done than good. The mouse rarely survives the claws of the cat.

What would happen if the devil’s advocate role was banned from our conference rooms? What if instead we started saying “yes, and…” when we hear a new idea.  With an attitude that says, “how can we make this work?” we can change the dialogue to something more productive and affirming. Instead of people being put on the defensive, fighting against the devil, we would encourage idea generation and look for ways to perfect the proposal or clarify points.

Does this sound too altruistic? Too soft? Are you wondering who is going to challenge all of the half-baked ideas pitched in meetings? Maybe your worry and need to challenge others’ ideas is an opportunity to evaluate your own motives.

Throwing away ideas too soon is like opening a package of flower seeds and then throwing them away because they’re not pretty.

Use the same energy you put into being the devil’s advocate into advocating the ideas of your colleagues. The positive transformation will empower you and others to make things possible, to uncover potential, and to co-create the future.

Whose Job Is It To Make Me Happy?

Who is responsible for making sure I’m happy at work? Many managers will assume the answer is supposed to be them. With engagement surveys, pressures to reduce turnover, and assumptions from employees, the finger seems to point to leaders to make sure everyone is happy in their jobs, right? I’m not so sure.

Happiness is elusive and workplace happiness appears to be hard to come by for many workers. Well-intentioned organizations design workplace cultures intended to promote greater satisfaction on the job. SAS, Google, Qualcomm, Edward Jones and W.L. Gore all seem to be getting things right.

The Gallup Organization has found that

Happy employees are better equipped to handle workplace relationships, stress, and change. Companies that understand this, and help employees improve their wellbeing, can boost their productivity.

So it’s the company’s job to make employees happy? While an organization can provide meaningful work, opportunities to grow and develop, and programs to help manage “work-life balance” I wonder how much an organization can ultimately influence happiness and wellbeing in its employees.

I think the answer has to be that it’s the job of every employee to make themselves happy. Happiness is a choice, and each individual has to make the decision to be happy despite (or perhaps in spite of) circumstances. Shawn Achor writes about this choice in The Happiness Advantage, stating that it is possible to change our mindsets and adopt a happier outlook. Achor says

The most successful people adopt a mindset that not only makes their workdays more bearable, but also helps them work longer, harder, and faster than their negative mindset peers.

Achor describes how we can change our mindsets, including thinking about tedious tasks differently. We lose out on joy when every task becomes something we “have” to do instead of something we “get” to do. The good news is that we really can rewire our brains to see menial tasks and even dreaded meetings as positive events by changing the way we think about them!

When we get work assignments that don’t thrill us, when we are asked to do one thing when we think something else would be more useful, and when we find our work dull to the point of painful, we have a choice.

  1. We can suffer through, grudgingly getting our work done but aware of how much its sucking the life out of us each minute.
  2. We can decide to start looking for a new job that provides more satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a better fit for our skills and aspirations.
  3. We can choose to change the way we think about the work. It means creating new habits that replace our default perspectives and attitudes with more useful ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson said

The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the domination of outward conditions.

Creating happiness is not about a mystical “I think happy thoughts so I am happy” new-age mindset. Not that there aren’t spiritual components to being happy, which are very important. For instance, the Apostle Paul did not have any easy life as he faced hardships and persecution on his missionary journeys. In his letter to the Philippian church, however, he says,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Paul’s secret to happiness was his perspective based on his faith. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” So maybe the key to happiness is a combination of faith-based positivity (aka hope) and the science of creating new maps for our minds that give us perspective beyond the moment and connect us to a larger purpose.

It is important for organizations to develop an engaging culture where individuals are assigned meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to do what they do best every day. Leaders should care about creating an environment that promotes satisfaction and minimizes frustrations. These types of initiatives will set the tone for happiness. But it really comes down to the individual making choices to be happy no matter the circumstances.

Tommy Newberry, a life coach and author, writes in The 4:8 Principle:

When you focus on the good, you not only notice more good but you actually create more good. Focusing on positive things causes you to search for more that’s positive. As a result, you perceive and appreciate more good, which sets the stage for even more positive circumstances. Eventually, you will have more joy, more enthusiasm, and more gratitude. This outlook draws the best out of other people and situations, creating a virtuous cycle (rather than a vicious cycle) in which you continually find and multiply what you’re looking for.

Nobody else can do that for us. So it’s my job to make myself happy by continuously choosing to think positively about my circumstances, even when my boss may be driving me crazy, I can’t seem to get certain things off my to-do list, and I’m still a work in progress.

Why You Want Your CEO to be Happy

You’ve heard the adage a happy worker is a productive worker. Well take it to the highest level of the organization and the same is true. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, “Happy CEOs are more likely to lead teams of employees who are both happy and healthy, and who find their work climate conducive to high performance.” When the CEO or any other senior leader places happiness – the joy we feel striving after potential – before success, they create a culture where people are having fun, experience hope, pride, inspiration and camaraderie.

Contrary to popular opinion, happiness causes success, not the other way around. If you’re suffering through and foregoing happiness until you achieve some level of success, you will never arrive at happy. It will elude you, because happiness isn’t about things and achievements, it’s about finding contentment despite circumstances, latching onto hope and positivity even during difficulties.

“Every time employees experience a small burst of happiness, they get primed for creativity and innovation. They see solutions they might otherwise have missed.”  – Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

CEOs and other leaders who cultivate happiness in the workplace will experience a more committed, healthy, and efficient workforce. And not only are happy CEOs (and workers) more productive, they’re smarter! According to Barbara Frederickson, a thought leader in positivity, “positive emotions expand cognition and behavioral tendencies,” making us more creative and quick on our feet.  

Happy leaders will find ways for followers to be happy. Whether energetic happiness, like joy and excitement, or subtle happiness like contentment and serenity, when these emotions are fostered in the workplace, research finds that “positive emotions transform individual employees and managers, making them more effective in the moment, and more successful in the long run. Frederickson and others in the emerging field of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) refer to this as upward spirals.” The idea is that as positive emotions build on one another over time in a cycle that increases resiliency, social integration, and capability.

You may not be able to influence the CEO to be happy, unless you are the CEO! But you do have the ability to develop positivity within yourself, creating the upward spirals that will lead to your own success.  Frederickson & her colleagues state,

“Positive meaning at work can be drawn from experiences of competence, achievement, involvement, significance, and social connection.”

Achor suggests that we can raise our happiness in our workplaces by

  • Finding something to look forward to
  • Committing conscious acts of kindness
  • Infusing positivity into our surroundings
  • Exercising
  • Using strengths & skills

Assuring Constancy Amidst Constant Change

Ruth Graham writes,

“It is difficult to trust things that change. Trust is built on the assurance of constancy.”

It’s almost cliché to say that we live in times of constant change – we know more change than we do steadiness. Fourth generation (4G) mobile technology is being released and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as generations of technology! The iPod was launched in 2001 and is in its 6th generation, meaning that the technology is waaaayyyy better today than it was in 2001, right?

Besides technology, we see change everywhere around us. Egypt is in the midst of a chaotic change to its political system as individuals take to the streets demanding to be heard. Companies have had to react to economic changes, forcing some to shut their doors for good, others to lay off scores of workers, while others took the opportunity to reinvent themselves to survive and thrive rather than fall victim of the recession.

So what is a leader to do when followers are looking for an anchor when change is swirling around them? The simple answer is character.

The leader who forgets that people are looking for stability will soon find their followers stopped in their tracks, unable to move forward because uncertainty has paralyzed them.

This disengagement occurs when leaders put forward momentum before relationships and miss opportunities to assure stability of character despite uncertainty and shifting priorities within the organization. I worked for a company that had three CEOs in less than five years and a new one was just coming in the door when I was leaving. Each executive had his own agenda, which meant no one knew from one year to the next what was going to happen to their job. It didn’t help that this company has a reputation for regular layoffs, so the level of uncertainty was magnified and pandemonium reigned. People put in their time, but politics and turf wars prevented the organization from thriving.

But there were some managers who did especially well even in this tumultuous climate. Leaders were often in the same boat as their followers however, I witnessed a couple of outliers who managed to maintain the trust of their team even though the future was uncertain. These leaders demonstrated constancy of character in the following ways:

  1. Transparency. The leaders who were best at creating constancy amidst change were honest and open. They shared their own concerns and frustrations in a way that promoted dialogue without promising anything beyond what they could commit to. They didn’t pretend and they didn’t ignore the issues, but faced them plainly and honestly.
  2. Positivity. Those leaders who could keep a proper perspective helped their followers to do the same. Positivity in the middle of uncertainty is challenging, but I saw leaders who could communicate with a long-term vision and foster a sense of “everything is going to be alright” amongst their teams. They remind people that change can be good and that even if we don’t initially like the outcome we will adapt, learn, or find something that fits us better in the long run.
  3. Reliability. Leaders who avoided jumping on the bandwagon of rumor, second-guessing, and chasing scape-goats provide an anchor for followers, a positive example of reliability and duty that strengthens the group. The reliable leader listens well but doesn’t allow finger-pointing or back-stabbing. This sends a message that the leader can be trusted and a calm in the storm.

Assuring constancy amidst constant change is a critical skill for leaders to develop in our fast-paced world.

The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus, in The Art of Living, says, “To live a life of virtue, you have to become consistent, even when it isn’t convenient, comfortable, or easy.”

Virtuous leaders who develop the consistent character traits of transparency, positivity and reliability when it is inconvenient and difficult, find that they are boosted by the support of faithful followers. This mutual partnership can withstand constant change in circumstances because it runs deeper than the external chaos in which it operates.