Do you work with deviants?

Don’t just ask what’s wrong and how you we fix it; also ask what’s right, and how you can have more of it. TIM SHARP

Timothy Sharp Happiness Institute

By Tim Sharp

Do you sometimes think the people with whom you work, or the people who work for you, are deviants? If so, you should treasure and idolise and reward them; you should do whatever you can to keep them and to spread their deviant behaviours throughout your organisation!

Now before you go thinking that I’m some kind of reprobate or that I’m advocating anything illegal or immoral, please allow me a chance to clarify exactly about who and what I’m talking.

The deviants I’m talking about are positive deviants; these are the people who despite facing the same challenges as everyone else within your organisation, and who despite only having access to the same resources as everyone else, outperform their peers with impressive regularity. These people deviate from the norm… in a positive way.

And that’s why they’re so important! So often, managers and employers focus on underperformers and trouble makers, or the so called squeaky wheels that obviously need some oil. While doing so, and often without realising it, what they’re also doing is ignoring their best performers.

The assumption is that the best performers are doing well and so don’t really need any help; all assistance, time and resources, then, go to the worst performers. In my experience, many managers and organisations suffer the delusion that if they can just fix all the problems their business will succeed.

But fixing problems is only part of the equation; it is, at times, an important part of the equation but it only, at best, goes half way to creating a successful and profitable enterprise.

In addition to fixing problems, the best managers and the most successful organisations also identify and fully utilise all of their strengths and assets (which in many situations includes their best performers). They don’t just ask what’s wrong and how can we fix it; they also ask what’s right and how can we have more of it.

Research into positive deviants has identified a number of defining characteristics. In short, positive deviants are more likely to:

  • Care more about what they do and so are more likely to take positive action and risk departing from standards and norms.
  • Be driven by a need to improve the common good.
  • Believe they have the ability to choose what and how they do what they do.
  • Be confident in their ability to complete required tasks.
  • Possess the courage sometimes required to deviate and to be different.

As a consultant and coach to organisations, I’ve learned that finding positive deviates is only the first step. Following this it’s also important to identify, very specifically, the key behaviours that differentiate these people from all others. Once these key behaviours have been defined, the challenge is then to find ways to get more people, within the team or organisation, to also do the same things.

When we’re children we’re often encouraged to be ourselves. If your friend jumped off a cliff, many parents have been heard to say, would you follow them? The correct answer is “no”, I’d stand up for what I think is right (and, in this example, for what I think will not cause me serious bodily harm). But somehow or other, when we become adults, we suddenly feel this incredible urge to “fit in”.

Social acceptance is important but too often, especially within a business context, those who’re different are ignored or even worse, made to feel embarrassed.

The Positive Organisational Scholarship research clearly suggests that we should not just stop ignoring these people but we should actively identify positive deviants; clearly find out what they do that’s different and effective; and then teach these key behaviours to as many other relevant people as possible.

After almost two decades experience, I couldn’t agree more.


Dr. Sharp’s latest book (published August 2008) is “100 Ways to Happiness: a Guide for Busy People” (Penguin). You can find out more about corporate programs, presentations, and coaching services at and You can also ask him questions using the Comments panel below.

For more Dr Happy blogs, click here.



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