Positive deviants and heroes – two versions of the same thing?

Everyday heroes in a hostile world

There has been a lively twitter conversation about a fascinating interview with Philip Zimbardo, Stanford professor emeritus and author of “the Lucifer Effect“.  He explains that society may condition good people to do bad things, such as join gangs and participate in violence.  This has been demonstrated in his “prison” experiment, and in the famous “electric shock” experiments of Stanley Milgram.  If you put good people in a bad environment, they will do bad things.  Philip helps people learn to be ordinary heroes.

Heroes as positive deviants?

Zimbardo argues that heroes, ordinary people who rise above this social norm, are positive deviants.  The interviewer, Michael Bungay Stanier,  said that this resonated with him, because he had interviewed Jerry Sternin of the Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI).  Stanier summarises some of Jerry’s work.  They agreed that these were similar concepts.  Philip then goes on to describe his new  www.heroicimagination.org work.  He explains how you can be a “hero in training” and a hero in organisations by stepping apart from the norm. Heroes are then networked to push for a new norm.

Jerry Sternin at our Oxford workshop, 2007
Jerry Sternin at our Oxford workshop, 2006

What is “real” positive deviance?

The Twitter question to me was “Is this really positive deviance”?  I learned directly from Jerry and Monique Sternin, and from Richard Pascale, and have had some success in implementing their version of PD in the UK.

I said yes, but this view of positive deviance, and the emphasis on heroes, morality and honour, is not quite what I understand Jerry’s vision or version to be.

Philip Zimbardo’s concept of hero as positive deviant is more in line with the University of Michigan school of positive deviance.  This focuses on the values and personalities of people who do rise above the norm – see Spreitzer, GM and Sonenschein S, (2004) Towards the Construct Definition of Positive Deviance; American Behavioral Scientist 2004; 47; 828 .  

Acting your way into a new way of thinking

The Sternin/PDI  version is actually a highly practical way of discovering more effective practices and behaviours that already exist, but which are hidden, in communities.  For a simple explanation of its use in organisations, see Pascale R and Sternin, J – Your Company’s Secret Change Agents, Harvard Business Review, May 2005.  You can also download my article on the topic, which I’m proud to say was used for induction  in the US hospital infections programme.   JL Quality World article (623 downloads)

These exceptional practices may well overcome peer pressure to conform to negative norms.  PD has been used successfully to reduce female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and school exclusion.   They may also help the positive deviants to perform better than their peers in organisations.  But the aim isn’t either to identify everyday heroes or to turn everyone into one, more to make life better for everyone.

The differences in behaviour between the norm and the positive deviants are tiny but significant.  They are not particularly heroic .  An example is greeting school students by name every day at the door of the school room.  This is one of several simple things that reduced exclusions by 50% in 6 months in Clairton PA.

Whilst the exceptional practices may be linked to different values, there is no overt attempt to change the values of everyone else.  In using the  new practices, and seeing “social proof” that they work, people act their way into a new way of thinking.  They try small things that get a better reaction – this is easy and builds confidence.

Being a hero or just better ways of working?

The Tufts University/PDI/Sternin approach to PD is a 5-step process.  This enables any community to discover and implement successful practices.  However, the people who have these positive, exceptional, observable behaviours are not necessarily identified to the wider community, and not termed heroes.  This is a cultural or situational thing.  We Brits seem to get very embarrassed about being a hero, and possibly resent heroes.  It could be risky to identify positive deviants in some communities.  On the other hand, positive deviants are identified and named in the very successful US and Canadian programme to reduce hospital infections.

The positive deviance approach

The Sternin five-stage process is deceptively simple.

  • Define the problem
  • Determine if there are exceptions who seem to have overcome the problem already
  • Discover what they do
  • Design a way to teach it to all
  • Dissseminate it through the community.

In order for it to work effectively, there is a lot of behind-the- scenes work by facilitators.  They need to understand social norms and get evidence of their negative impact.

It is vital to engage leaders, to create the space for people to explore and experiment with ideas which are threatening to the status quo. Those, whose behaviour is the norm, learn from evidence and stories why and how their current behaviour is harmful.  They learn that the different behaviours are not dangerous, and in fact far more beneficial.  “Normal” community members volunteer to learn how positive deviants perform better.  They observe and note what they do and how they do it, and then create ways for their peers to learn.

This discovery process is essential to getting both ownership and buy-in of the way forward, supported by changed beliefs of what “good” looks like.  These “Normal” people, who have learned how to do the exceptional behaviours and practices, not necessarily the “heroes,” teach other “normal” people.

Awareness of the power of social norms is critical

Zimbardo’s work is a really helpful addition because it demonstrates the power of peer pressure, for good or ill.  It also has some great ways to demonstrate safely and vividly what this means in practice.  But it is not the same as “positive deviance” approach as practised by us and the Sternins.

We have found that there is a whole phase of foundation work that needs to precede the five steps of PD.  This is why we have evolved our Hidden Insights® model, to ensure we create the environment for success.

HI triangle July 16

There are many similarities with Zimbardo’s thinking.  These include the need to network and support the emerging positive deviants.  We encourage the creation of networks, both  to support learning and to create positive relationships that sustain behaviour change.  The exceptional practices are screened to ensure they are not only accessible to all but benefit all.  So I guess we are all heading in the same direction.  We believe in the possibility of a better way, the good that is hidden below the surface of communities.  We support the creation of an environment where mutual care and compassion can flourish.


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