Posted by: Susan | May 23, 2010

Company Struggling? Become Positively Deviant!

With so much downsizing in recent months, many companies are struggling with the negative effects it normally causes – conflict, backbiting, criticism and adversarial feelings,  to name a few.    Eventually, if left unchecked, these negative effects can actually slow or even prevent a company from recovering and getting back on its feet.  When things don’t improve, the employees and shareholders look to leadership to right the ship.  But how do you do that after some pretty deep layoffs, when morale and loyalty are low?   How do you put things back on track when your employees are cynical, angry and afraid of losing their jobs?   Much has been written on the subject, and there are a million “experts” out there that will give you their version of the magic formula.  Bottom line, there is no easy answer and there’s definitely no magic formula.  However, there is a strategy I think may help you if you’re facing this dilemma.   By the way, everyone is a “leader” when it comes to pulling an organization out of this kind of mess and here’s what everyone can do:   

Implement a company-wide, grass-roots campaign to emphasize what elevates people and systems, what’s going right in the organization, what is life-giving, and what is good and inspiring. 

Now, this doesn’t mean you ignore things that aren’t going so well or are problematic, it just means that you give the positive things at least as much attention.   Reach out to everyone in the organization, from the top down, empowering those who choose to, to adopt a culture of positively deviant leadership.   Notice I didn’t say devious, but rather deviant!    

Dr. Kim Cameron, out of the University of Michigan, wrote a fascinating book on the subject and in it, he cites an example of positively deviant leadership that occurred at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut.  It seems Griffin faced a crisis when the popular vice president of operations, Patrick Charmel, was forced to resign by the Board of Directors.  Most employees viewed him as the most innovative and effective administrator at the hospital, inspiring everyone with his positive energy and hope for the future.  His resignation threw the organization into turmoil.  Fear and low morale permeated the system.  Then, a group of employees appealed to the Board of Directors and he was re-instated.  Within six months of his return, though, the hospital faced millions of dollars in losses, and Charmel had to eliminate the jobs of some of the very people who had supported his return!  Yet, instead of those normal negative effects I mentioned earlier, the opposite occurred.  Charmel made a concerted effort to institutionalize and implement aspects of positively deviant leadership rather than merely manage the required change.  Here’s what he did:

  1. Fostered a positive climate rather than a negative one where relationships, communication, and meaningfulness of work were emphasized.
  2. Championed forgiveness, optimism, trust and integrity with daily stories of compassion, acts of kindness and virtue reported.

Employees reported that the personal and organizational damage done by the announced downsizing – friends losing jobs, budgets being cut – were, for the most part, forgiven.   Employees released grudges and resentment, and the workforce was instead led forward toward an optimistic future.  The language used throughout the organization frequently included words such as love, hope, compassion, forgiveness and humility.  I know, you might be thinking that this sounds like a bunch of pollyanna feel-good nonsense.  But get this:  The result was that Griffin Hospital has been listed in the top 25 Best Places to Work for more than 5 years and is ranked 12th in the Top 100 Quality Award! 

It all happened with great leaders and their role in enabling extraordinary positive performance using the strategies of positively deviant leadership

So, do I believe that positively deviant leadership is a magic wand that will wipe out ALL the negative effects of downsizing and change in an organization?  Absolutely not.  But I do believe that when you empower everyone in the organization – from the top down – to focus on what elevates people, what goes right, what is life-giving and what is inspiring, you will enjoy an environment that makes for a ‘best place to work.’  And in doing so, your customers will reap some pretty powerful benefits and your bottom line will improve too. 

For more on this topic, I recommend you read Positive Leadership – Strategies for Extraordinary Performance.  In it, Dr. Kim Cameron shows how to reach beyond ordinary success to achieve extraordinary effectiveness, spectacular results, and what he calls “positively deviant performance”—performance far above the norm.  Citing a wide range of research in organizational development and psychology as well as real-world examples, Cameron shows that to go from successful to exceptional, leaders must learn how to create a profoundly positive environment in the workplace. They must build on strengths rather than simply focus on weaknesses; foster positive emotions like compassion, optimism, gratitude, and forgiveness; encourage mutually supportive relationships at all levels; and provide employees with a deep sense of meaning and purpose. In this concise, inspiring, and practical guide, Cameron describes four specific positive leadership strategies, lays out a proven process for implementing them.


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