Finding the Positive Deviant at Work

Last weekend I attended the Behavior Change for a Sustainable World conference sponsored by the Association for Behavior Analysis International. The sessions delivered during this 3-day event were highly engaging but one was particularly meaningful to me and to the work we do at Aubrey Daniels International (ADI). Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy, discussed the topic of positive deviance, a term that refers to a process of discovery in biological science to find the thriving among non-thriving plants, animal species, and humans and to explore what they are doing that is different, given that in each case, they are surrounded by the same environment as those who do not thrive. Kareiva talked about how this concept of  positive deviance works so very well when humans change small aspects of their behavior, providing unexpectedly positive outcomes.

An early use of this investigative process in Vietnam was described where infants were showing classic signs of failure to thrive due to malnutrition. Kareiva noted that among the same population of babies who were not thriving, there were a very few children who were not only maintaining but thriving. Behavior must have been the differential, not genetics. What behavior-based practices did the mothers of these infants do that were so different, given that they all had the same amount of rice to feed their babies and were in the same village? What they found that these particular mothers did was that by distributing the same amount of rice over 4 feedings during the day (instead of the two of most mothers at the start and end of day) and by adding small bits of crushed up ants, crickets and other insects to the rice (a practice reserved by tradition for adults only), these mother produced healthy children (normal by height and weight standards—not fat but normal). The intervention was to get all mothers to then do the same—4 feedings across the day, add bugs to the rice—and within six weeks, the other babies were thriving as well.

The solution to this terrible problem was in the behavioral practices of humans—still with the same amount of food but with different distribution and food additive practices. Kareiva’s point was that we each need to find the positive deviance among us—the excellence in behavior that exists side-by-side with practices that do not accomplish what is needed. Thomas Gilbert, considered the father of performance improvement, developed the Performance Improvement Potential (PIP), a formula by which the exemplar in a given environment can be measured and then pinpoints to help other  individuals achieve at a level up from their current performance all the way to the exemplar’s rate of performance. Instead of assuming that exemplary performance cannot be achieved by all, consider that all can ‘thrive’ based on the reinforcement for worthy behavior, and that there are lessons to be learned in how the exemplar approaches work. Each individual with his or her unique skills can achieve at higher rates with small modifications in application and reinforcement that shape to the next level.

All too often variations in performance are considered as part of a normal bell-shaped curve. So a manager might look at her team and say to herself, “Low and middle performers are all playing their part along the normal curve, doing the best they can. At least I have a few exceptions at the far end of the curve who keep us really going” Let’s not assume normal distribution, a statistical assumption that does not tell us anything about the individual along that curve—let’s assume that each person is capable of more effective performance—moving above their own baselines and striving toward excellence. That move forward for all on the team is what the manager’s core job is about: Arranging the conditions so that each individual on the team succeeds. Each individual’s success is how a manager’s success should be measured. The PIP tool can be used to find the excellent performers among the many in the same work environment, just as with positive deviance, as the researchers in Vietnam did with finding the exceptional practices of a few young mothers among those who failed to arrange the right conditions of support. Those exemplar performers tell you what is possible in your work setting at the current time—not necessarily what could be possible for everyone, including exemplars.  Such demonstrations of success make for a good start in analyzing the variance. Learn about the power of positive reinforcement to accelerate valuable performance from all. Here’s to the positive deviance around you! Find it and use it! Focus on that and not on the sad and unnecessary state of those who do not ‘thrive’ in your workplace—redefine your ‘normal’ learning curve as an upward slope toward mastery and fluency possible from everyone.  

Bringing Out the Best®


Posted by Darnell Lattal, Ph.D.

For more than 30 years, Darnell has been dedicated to supporting clients in areas such as strategy implementation, behavioral systems redesign, and leadership development.  Her expertise lies in coaching individuals and organizations towards effective behavior change.