Skip to main content

Building a Better Deviant

Sick of accepting mediocrity at work? Here are five safe ways to stand up for what you believe in

While we tend to see deviants in a negative light, “constructive deviants” are impressive achievers who challenge organizational lethargy and uphold high standards of behaviour in the face of resistance. In this QSB Insight TALKS presentation filmed at Queen’s Grant Hall, Jana Raver discusses the benefits and risks of constructive deviance for the organization and the individual, and offers five ways to pull it off without attracting blowback. Raver is associate professor and E. Marie Shantz Fellow in Organizational Behaviour at Queen’s School of Business.

Video Highlights

0:16     We’ve seen the dark side of organizational deviants: the slackers, fraudsters, back stabbers. But research over the last decade offers a more nuanced view, picturing deviance not strictly as negative behaviour but as a violation of a norm, a departure from accepted standards.

3:20     In a high-performing organization in which there’s a collective pursuit of excellence, someone who behaves unethically or harms others is a destructive deviant. In organizations where lethargy and unethical behaviour rule, a high achiever who tries to uphold standards is considered a constructive deviant. Unfortunately, Raver says, surveys have shown that in most organizations, half of the workers are just floating through their days; no more than 20 percent are actively engaged (in other words, constructive deviants) while the remainder are actively disengaged.

5:06     Constructive deviance has been described as “expressing voice”, whistle blowing, taking charge, creative performance, and principled organizational dissent, all delivered with a positive intent. Smart companies realize that encouraging constructive deviance saves money and increases innovation. It exposes dysfunction and unethical behaviour; allows for social change; encourages growth and learning; and improves group decision-making. 

11:32     Individuals behaving as constructive deviants benefit as well. Prosocial behaviour is associated with positive performance appraisals and greater opportunities for rewards in the form of higher salaries and promotions. Psychological benefits include increased feelings of control and reduced stress. But there are also risks: potential victimization by peers who feel threatened; being seen as a perpetual complainer; and being ostracized for exposing wrongdoing. But these risks are often exaggerated in employees’ minds. “If you sit back like a disengaged, apathetic employee who will simply tolerate mediocrity,” Raver says, “then you’re not going to be able to make that positive change.”

16:16     Five ways to realize the benefits of constructive deviance while mitigating the risks: 

  1. Find your cause: What convictions or personal standards are being violated and making you uncomfortable?
  2. Pick your battles: If you question everything, you’re seen as a complainer; are you truly committed to the group’s welfare or merely acting out of self-interest?
  3. Know how to build your case: Use the principles of persuasion such as reciprocity and building consensus and mobilize your social network.
  4. Be willing to do the work: It’s not enough to just expect others to do the heavy lifting.
  5. Be persistent: Enduring change takes longer to achieve than you think.