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Innovation: How A Little Deviance Can Be a Good Thing

Do you consider yourself or your team leadership a “constructive deviant,” a “destructive deviant,” a little of both, or none of the above?

According to research by the University of Tampa (UT), some of the most valuable individuals in an organization are both constructive and destructive deviants. Why?

It turns out that workplace deviance – defined as voluntary behavior that breaks the rules and threatens conventional norms – can actually be the root of successful innovations.

Naturally, you wouldn’t normally think that on-the-job misbehavior could ever be a good thing for organizations. But balanced constructively, the concept’s actually becoming an increasingly relevant topic among companies looking to perform better, achieve more and break out of conformity.

The reason: Employees who deviate can also be the organization’s potential catalysts, increasing its well-being and nimbleness by challenging the status quo and forcing new ways of thinking or doing business.

“Employees who break the rules and cause harm to the organization are also your organization’s potential change agents,” says Bella Galperin, Ph.D., professor of management at UT, and senior associate director of the TECO Energy Center for Leadership. “They will break the rules to increase the well-being of your organization.”

Galperin co-authored the UT/Academy of Management research study, “Constructive Deviance: Striving Toward Organizational Change.”

Channeling Constructive Deviance

Rather than focusing on quashing any streak of nonconformity, the key is to identify deviants and effectively guide and supervise them in ways that constructively channel their out-of-the-box actions.

More often, organizations have tended to focus their efforts on identifying and reducing destructive deviants – potentially aggressive and dishonest employees. In fact, the prevalence of destructive and harmful actions is surprisingly common in the workplace today. About 70 percent of employees have engaged in some kind of “deviant” behavior, such as losing their temper at work. Moreover, it’s currently estimated that more than 2 million people become victims of work-related crimes.

So it comes as no surprise that the destructive deviant behaviors result in some really substantial economic and social costs for businesses. According to the National Safe Workplace Institute, for example, workplace misbehavior is estimated to cost organizations approximately $4.2 billion in lost productivity, business interruption and legal expenses. On top of that, there are other, immeasurable costs as well – including tarnished reputations, damaged employee morale, increased absenteeism and higher turnover, among them.

Turning Rogues Into Trailblazers

On the flip side, therefore, developing constructive deviance may help secure a company’s position in the new economy – and spur innovation to boot. This is especially true today, with the increased importance of the nation’s “creativity economy.”

“While it’s important for organizations to make active efforts in decreasing the occurrence of deviant acts and preventing destructive behaviors, it’s equally important for organizations to focus their energies on identifying the constructive deviants,” Galperin argues. “These individuals can bring innovation to your organization.”

That said, she realizes this is counter intuitive, as destructive deviants in the workplace can be tough to manage and can burden morale. But if your goal is to foster truly original and unorthodox thinking, there are ways to identify constructive deviants – and guide their adventurous spirit.

“Successful management of deviance may lead to the development of trailblazers instead of rogue employees,” Galperin says.

4 Factors of Constructive Deviance

Let’s look at four factors related to constructive deviance as described by a study on the subject by University of Tampa researchers, which was published in the Journal of Management and Marketing Research. Specifically, says UT professor of management Bella Galperin, those who are high in emotional intelligence, empathy, extroversion and trust are expected to be the members of your team who are much more likely engage in constructive deviance. Here’s a breakdown of specific traits:

  1. Emotional intelligence emphasizes the ability to connect with people and understand their emotions. Most workplace sociologists further characterize this trait as having a set of four related abilities: perceiving, using, understanding and managing emotions.
  2. Empathy evokes a motivation to meet another person’s needs. Empathetic individuals have an interpersonal driver that involves an understanding of the experiences, concerns and perspectives of another person, combined with a capacity to communicate this understanding.
  3. Extroversion is the extent to which a person is outgoing vs. shy. High extroverts enjoy social situations; while those low on this dimension (introverts) avoid them. An extrovert is generally most content when surrounded by people; they genuinely instill a humaneness quality and camaraderie to others.
  4. Trust is central to the best working relationships, and it has an overwhelming effect on cementing the positives associated with constructive deviance. Brutal honesty, for instance, can both dramatically reduce risk – plus increase satisfaction and ultimately, success.