In 2014, Jennifer Evans found herself in a job that wasn’t a good fit. She had taken a position as an administrative assistant at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “[The job] was very linear, and I am not really linear at all,” Evans says, laughing. What she didn’t know, but quickly learned, was that Ross is a hub of positive positive organizational scholarship research.
Evans joined a staff book club where they read Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron. “The two things that just popped out at me and made me so happy were the terms ‘positive deviance’ and ‘heliotropic effect,’” she says. “I was over the moon with these terms because they really identified what I’d been expressing my whole life.”
Heliotropy is the ability of plants to move or grow towards the sun, and the heliotropic effect is based on the idea that every living system has a tendency to move towards the light and away from the dark. It’s the hypothesis that societies, cultures, organizations, groups and individuals are naturally inclined to flourish in a positive environment.
Positive deviance describes behaviours or activities that are outside the norm but that have positive outcomes.
These two concepts inspired Evans to launch a number of guerrilla initiatives in her workplace based on the positive psychology ideas she was being exposed to. Today, she is the director of Positive Deviance Lab, speaking and teaching on the subject. But at the time, she was a low-authority office worker trying to improve her experience at work.
Evans started out doing small things, such as putting flowers out in the lobby of her office. “I thought there would probably be a rule,” she says. “‘Who’s going to bring the flowers, somebody’s going to be allergic, who’s going to pay for them, what if the water gets dirty, who’s going to take care of them’ — those are all objections that could have come up … I was worried because the only reason I was happy was because I was doing these things. I didn’t want to be told to stop.
“As a matter of fact I wasn’t told to stop. I got a lot of emails and comments from faculty and staff about how much they loved seeing the flowers … It made people happier, it let me contribute. It elicited a lot of the positive emotions that we know contributes to people feeling better and being more productive.”
Over time she took positive deviance further, initiating bigger projects.
“I started teaching staff workshops based in positive psychology research,” she says. “It was deviance because no other staff person was doing it. I wasn’t authorized to do it, I wasn’t paid to do it, it wasn’t in my role and no one expected me to do it. Plus it was almost on the verge of not appropriate for me to do because of my role … It was deviant socially, it was deviant job description wise, it was deviant who-does-she-think-she-is-wise … [Yet] it was positive because staff came, they got exposed to this content and I was happier because I was doing what is really more in my nature.”
Other things she tried included ideas as simple as distributing mini thank-you notecards and bigger ideas like convincing the school to put up posters with “mindful inspirations” quotes in poster display cases around the school.
Evans encourages others to do what she did and has a few tips on how to do it:
1.Start small, if you want to be a positive deviant. “And if you think you’re going to get pushback, go smaller,” she says.
2. Question your assumptions. Don’t assume your deviant behaviour will be frowned on. You will never know whether you’re going to get into trouble for putting flowers in the lobby unless you try.
3. Do what you want. “Don’t do it just because I did it. Do it because you want to do it,” Evans says. If you don’t want to get stuck paying for the flowers, then do a different thing. “Do something that makes your heart sing — do something that brings you positive energy, not just because they’re good ideas or you like them,” she says.
Though Evans was told that she influenced the culture at Ross, she says that wasn’t her motivation for injecting positivity into her workplace. Her motivation was to influence her own experience and make herself happy. However, she adds that, when you do that, it can’t help but have a spillover effect both on culture and on other people within the organization.
4. Keep trying. If your ideas get shot down or management tells you to stop doing what you’re doing, find an alternative that will give you the result that you’re looking for. “Look for the energy you’re seeking and see how else you can get that,” she says.
She also says that resistance is to be expected, and trying to warm people up to your deviant ideas before you act on them is unlikely to be effective.
“It’s deviant [behaviour]. People are going to react. You need to respect that. If you’re trying to warm people up, you’re trying to change them, and we all know how hard that is, right? It’s a danger zone when you’re trying to change other people, especially if you have no authority … if people react, don’t push back. It’s not going to help. Just try something else.”
When Evans began experimenting with positive deviance at Ross, she had the good fortune to have some of the brightest minds in positive organizational scholarship on her side. Kim Cameron, Bob Quinn and Jane Dutton became her mentors. Most of us aren’t so lucky, but, no matter where you work, Evans suggests finding a sympathetic mentor with authority to support you in your endeavours.
On the other side of the coin, as a leader, you can create an environment that supports positive deviance. Evans says the key is to determine what your goal is, for example creating a more positive environment. Then take a step back and watch your own reactions to things that are different. Notice when you’re reacting to something because it’s out of the norm, and then ask yourself if it’s really a problem. Maybe you’re worried that if one person wants to do it, everyone will want to, or that it will be too costly. Whatever your concern is, ask yourself if it’s actually true. Can you find a workaround? Can you make your work culture more amenable to trying things?
“Recognize that you probably will have a reaction to things because they’re different,” says Evans. “See the power of these small changes so that you’re not minimizing them, and really recognize how powerful these small actions are.”