Introducing the Positive Deviant

By William Seidman We’ve all worked with them: People who bring so much passion and enthusiasm to their jobs that it’s contagious. People who consistently outperform others and make it look easy. People who are admired not only for what they accomplish, but for who they are. In the business world, we call them top performers or rainmakers, but social scientists call them positive deviants. They are people whose performance deviates positively from that of the rest of the population. Where did the term come from? After the war in Vietnam, food was very scarce and many people suffered from malnutrition and starvation. Three social scientists (Richard Pascale, Gerry Sternin and Monique Sternin) went to Vietnam to try and find a solution. In every village they visited, everyone had access to the same limited resources and most people were starving. A few families, however, had healthy children. What was the difference? The scientists found that some mothers were willing to ignore cultural attitudes toward food in order to feed their children. For example, the traditional view in Vietnam was that shrimp and herbs were “dirty” foods and not to be included in rice patties. The women whose children were healthy had served these foods anyway, so their children were better nourished than the others. The researchers encouraged these women to share their knowledge with others, which dramatically reduced malnutrition. The women were labeled “positive deviants” because they had deviated from the rest of the population, with positive results. Social scientists now know that there are positive deviants—passionate and enthusiastic people who outperform others—in every group. Surely you already recognize them. But are you doing enough to understand what makes them tick so that you can inspire others to learn from them?]]>

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