Think:Act Magazine “Journey to the future”
Laura Morgan Roberts on positive deviance
Your differentness can be a liability for you in the workplace. Or it can be a source of advantage
by Neelima Mahajan
Editorial support: Emanuele Savettiere
Photo by Sorcha Augustine
Laura Morgan Roberts, an expert on diversity, authenticity and leadership development, emphasizes the importance of positive deviance and the potential benefits it can bring to diversity, equity and inclusion within organizations.
Being at the margins is never easy. You are different. You stick out. You are often the victim of conscious and unconscious biases. And you will never be part of the mainstream. Despite all of our efforts to eradicate them, inequality, marginalization and racism still persist within organizations. Laura Morgan Roberts, associate professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business, feels that there is another side of this coin: a positive one. She focuses on "positive deviants", people who wear their differentness on their sleeve.
This set of people does not identify with the prevailing cultural climate and does not adopt predetermined patterns of conduct that are considered ideal. As they deviate from the standard, these courageous and authentic individuals use their differentness as an asset that can be leveraged by organizations to their advantage.
In this interview conducted during the Global Peter Drucker Forum, Roberts explains the rationale behind the idea of positive deviance and shows us how it plays out in the real world.
Why do dissimilarities between different people become a cause of conflicts in organizations?
The source of the problem is not the differences that one's identity presents at face value. Our differences are beautiful, adaptable, reasonable and rational, considering our different cultural contexts and the environments in which we were raised, nurtured and socialized. The difference in identity is not the problem but the inability to learn from, learn across, learn with and learn about our differences.
People often lack exposure to working with individuals from diverse backgrounds, perspectives and lifestyles than their own, leading them to turn that discomfort into negative judgments or evaluations. Here is where the bias comes in. My positive bias tends to favor what I consider familiar and similar to me; my negative bias tends to oppose what I perceive to be different from me.
Therefore, I'm going to conclude that something's wrong with the difference and something's wrong with the other person. Our way of doing things is not just better than theirs, but the best. The hiccup, then, is not the difference: it's in the reaction to the difference, in the unwillingness to be capable of changing and adapting the culture and the practices of the organization.
How exactly can people from diverse backgrounds leverage their differentness to their advantage rather than let it be a disadvantage?
We expect people on the margins to always adapt to the culture: as if the culture of the organization doesn't need to change or shift at all. When it comes to cultural diversity, we have a lot of opportunities to be able to reevaluate our traditions, our pride and our practices. The very tokenism and marginalization that create challenges and stress for racial minorities can, paradoxically, also be sources of strength that empower minorities not only to navigate racism, but also to make rich, unique and powerful contributions to their work groups and organizations.
Those who feel marginalized are also more sensitive to social cues, and this social sensitivity encourages the building of relationships across dimensions of difference for minorities. For example, being the only or one of the few members of an identity group increases your distinctiveness. Some people use distinctiveness to their advantage – an idea I call 'positive deviance' – by making a memorable impression on others. How do they empower and equip you to add value to make meaningful and significant contributions to your organization, to your community and your society? If you are spending all your time and energy trying to adapt, assimilate and fit into the majority cultures, everybody is going to miss out on the value that your differences can bring.
So leaders need to understand [that they need to get] out of their comfort zone and embrace differences, even being open to changing and revisiting practices. The more leaders focus on adaptation, there will be less of a burden, then, on the newcomers and the people on the margins for adapting.
Everybody has to do some adapting, but we typically put the burden of that adaptation on the people who are on the margins; we need to shift the balance of responsibility on that to get the most out of diversity. People in the more powerful insider positions remain in their comfort zone. So [there needs to be] learning and adaptation for everybody. Last, but not least, cultural capital may also fuel the promise of diversity in work teams – unique experiences generate forms of human and intellectual capital (e.g., abilities and knowledge), particularly creativity.
She courageously spoke out about being sexually assaulted by her coach and the lack of psychological support from the US gymnastics association. While competing, she was criticized for saying: "I can't do this, and so, I won't do this" — continuing to compete would compromise her mental and physical health and her team performance would have suffered.
Allyson Felix expressed disappointment about the treatment she received after her sponsoring athletic company discovered she was pregnant. By leaving that sponsor and launching her own sportswear company, she speaks out against injustice and demonstrates a strong track record.
Burns stated, “I realized that I was more powerful and convincing to people when I told them what I thought, instead of telling them what I thought they wanted to hear.” She spoke about the importance of being honest when making decisions. As a trailblazer, the first, she was clear about bringing her authentic voice as a strategic decision-maker to those rooms and not hiding it.
Carla Harris talked about how authenticity has been her competitive edge: her artistic talent allowed her to build relationships and connections with partners and clients. A lack of faith in her abilities would have prevented her from succeeding.
Who to your mind best exemplifies this idea of "positive deviance" and why?
Positive deviance starts with the presumption that any deviation isn't inherently good or bad – it's just different. Some deviations can detract from individual or collective performance: when you perform below standard, you are not at the level of your competence; you are in the lowest quartile. We look for people whose performance deviates on the lower end of the curve. Positive deviants are individuals whose conduct diverges from the right end of the curve. Performing well is not enough. It takes a combination of performance and the willingness to be authentic to oneself.
Whenever I talk about black women Olympians who were positive deviants, I often use examples from their past since winning an Olympic medal makes you a successful person. Your performance and capabilities are not in question. In light of their distinctiveness, with all of the attention they receive, and with the platform that Olympic athletes have, they use that as a message to promote more inclusion, equity and justice in our society.
Allyson Felix, a record-setting runner in track and field, was quite vocal about how she was treated by her sponsoring athletic company when they found out about her pregnancy. They would pay pregnant athletes a much smaller percentage of their contracts than other athletes; sponsors consider pregnancy a liability to the athlete and, therefore, to the brand. Allyson Felix talks about how she went public about this – other athletes would not have to get up early to train at 3-4 AM to hide their pregnancy, she said. And then, she left that sponsor and started her own athleticwear company. It is an example of positive deviance: she's highlighting an injustice, demonstrating strong performance results, taking a risk and speaking out against a big sponsor.
Laura Morgan Roberts is an associate professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business and an expert on diversity, authenticity and leadership development. Along with Anthony J. Mayo and David A. Thomas, she co-edited the 2019 book Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience.
Any examples from the corporate world that stands out?
Ursula Burns was the first black woman CEO of Fortune 500 and Xerox; one of those rare candidates who was promoted and developed from within. She spoke about being honest at key decision-making points and what she believes is the right thing to do. Burns stated, “I realized that I was more powerful and convincing to people when I told them what I thought, instead of telling them what I thought they wanted to hear.” And so, she did take that strategy. I do not doubt that she has had to compromise on many other occasions. But being that trailblazer, the first, she was very clear about how she would bring her authentic voice as a strategic decision-maker into those rooms and not sort of tuck that away.
Another significant example is Carla Harris at Morgan Stanley, who talked about how her authenticity has been her competitive edge. She tried to maintain a clear distinction between her Morgan Stanley Wall Street banker persona and her gospel singer persona for a long time. After that, she realized that several people at Morgan Stanley (partners and clients) liked music and appreciated her singing skills – it was often a way to start building relationships and making connections with them during those personal times. She wouldn't have had it, if she had tried to remain in this box as "Morgan Stanley banker" and not bring in components of her faith or her other artistic talents. We all have those parts of ourselves that are distinctive, non-work related, in our identities and roles that give meaning to our lives. It is essential to find ways to bring some of these personal elements into our workplace and our relationships.
In all these examples of positive deviance you've been talking about, are there any commonalities in all of these people's personalities? Because to my mind, I think this is not something that everyone will be able to do. You need a certain level of confidence, you need to be comfortable.
It takes a certain amount of drive to be an extraordinarily high performer. You develop a degree of tenacity and persistence when you are in spaces like Ursula Burns or Carla Harris, where you are the only or one of the very few people in the room who share your ethnicity, family background or cultural context. How do you feel positive, above and beyond what other people might think of you? It is important to cultivate a feeling of pride and regard for your identity and performance to eliminate self-doubt and insecurity from your headspace. Positive deviance cannot be achieved without positive self-esteem and a sense of self-worth about your strengths and work. There has to be a foundation before you can do anything big, bold or brave, which is what positive deviance requires.
So from what you're saying, a lot of the onus of doing this seems to be on the shoulders of the individual. But you also briefly mentioned the organization's role in this. So, how do you really build a culture of openness in the workplace so that these individuals can bring their best selves to the workplace?
Leaders need to play a crucial role in shaping culture and structure. Regarding structure, are you providing incentives and growth opportunities for people who are willing to go against the grain? If you're in a context where people who stick their necks out are more vulnerable to getting it chopped off, they will reward the system and pick up the message that this is not the place where I can be a positive deviant. The development of talent management and incentive systems is essential for speaking and shaping these experiences more widely.
One way to make organizations more open: values and resources. There is more to value than just your ideology: it can be gauged by the time and resources you devote to something. If you assert that you value inclusion but have no designated leadership in that area or if your leaders have minimal budgets, you are essentially checking the quarterly returns box. These are the ways you value performance because other resources are tied to monitoring, developing, tracking and improving those things. What's liable to motivate senior executives to do so? They have to care and be motivated. Some care because of a business case, and others because of moral responsibility or justice. The caring has to be sharp, genuine and committed, pursuing these efforts, even in the wake of pushback and resistance.
At some level, this also points to the need to have psychological safety.
Psychological safety comes when an organization evaluates learning – an essential coefficient for high performance. Developing and strengthening psychological security requires the willingness to tolerate and recognize short-term performance glitches to reap long-term success. It is imperative to comprehend differences and learn from them for diversity, equity and inclusion to flourish.