New perspectives – psycho-social evidence for benefits of positive deviance

Jane Lewis and Dr Joanna Wilde ran a very successful workshop for the British Psychological Society in June.  This introduced positive deviance (PD) to a wider audience of accredited occupational and organisational psychologists.

We highlighted the benefits of working in this way at a time when workplaces can feel increasingly pressured and toxic.  True to the principles of positive deviance, it was an interactive session where participants worked on their own cases, mainly linked to staff (and volunteer) engagement, leadership and culture change.  Jane acted as the “expert non-expert” and Joanna commented on the links between our experience and current thinking and theory.  Her review helps to explain why positive deviance does work, and why it is particularly appropriate in the current climate.

The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and Intervening in the Workplace (Paperback) book cover

Key findings and references are set out in more detail in this download by Joanna pdf download pdf file, and in Joanna’s new book, “The Social Psychology of Organizations, diagnosing toxicity and intervening in the workplace”.   

The four key themes are:

  • Owning the insights
  • Helping people to see things differently
  • Helping people to change direction, and
  • Helping things to make sense

Owning the Insights:

“Ownership not buy in”  is an important principle of PD.  The problem-solving approach overcomes the “not invented here” syndrome by building capability, and opening minds, to find different, multiple kinds of evidence of what already works in situ.  The expert “non-expert” uses their skills to ensure that the work is “bathed in data” and also their professional knowledge to constructively challenge some of the evidence and opinions.

Helps people to see things differently

The “flip” or somersault question used in PD forces a new look at reality.  As Jane Bozarth pointed out (see previous post), we look at what works in the small percentage of cases that have overcome a particular issue already, for example “What happens in the 25% of annual reviews that are deemed to be positive and effective?”  not “What’s going wrong in the 75% of annual reviews that are reported to be unsatisfactory?”

We have found that we need to open up perceptions and view points from the start, before people will let go of hunting for what doesn’t work and become open to alternatives.  This is one of the key contributions that Hidden Insights is adding to the global positive deviance experience, and is essential to challenge bias without threatening personal identity.  This is particularly true where professionals are working with community members, and have very low expectations of what can be achieved without their professional tools and knowledge.  Even if they let go of advising and fixing, their next step is to pass their service users on to another body or individual who will do something similar, rather than try building self-sufficiency.

Helping people change direction

There have been many challenges to the standard, top-down, planned model of change – not least the old chestnut that 70% of change initiatives fail.  Our way of working doesn’t set out to confront change management orthodoxy, but does build on what works – we orchestrate and choreograph engagement and participation in conjunction with the intended audience, then co-create effective interventions, again with representatives of the people who need change.  This works inside-out and bottom-up, and is based on the “big task, small ask” principle where we create the conditions for many people to do something small but important, not by telling them what to do.  By ensuring that what happens is evidenced and monitored, the feedback loop reinforces behaviour change.

Helping things make sense

Storytelling is an important tool in PD, especially stories with numbers.  This goes with the grain of research that shows how narratives affect decisions and memory, and how important these are in developing cultures.  Positive stories and scenarios can be embedded in organisation or community  memory and create cultural resilience, just as much as negative ones create cynicism about an organisation’s ability to change.  Stories work simultaneously at different levels to create connections and strategic persistence.

All of these themes explain how our thinking has developed in terms of training people in using positive deviance, to make the approach simple and non-technical to use, whilst recognising the need to spend time helping to “de-programme” leaders, specialists and managers from the need to tell people what to do and to micro-manage, whilst still using their knowledge to reframe issues and challenge.

We highlighted how the Hidden Insights programme can help leaders to do more with less, building on the hidden, tacit knowledge and skills in their teams.  As such it’s a comprehensive, yet short and easy way to develop adaptive leadership skills and develop talent in the organisation, and a step-by-step practical approach to using positive deviance in practice.  Contact us to learn more about our training.

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