One of the great pleasures of my work is seeing the effects on people of conversations which engage strength, possibility, openness and curiosity.
They point out that these reflections bring clarity, insight, renewed optimism and motivation. They are reminded about ‘what’s really important’ to them and they ‘discover new ways to lift their performance and to ‘solve seemingly intractable problems’. These ‘conversations of possibility’ occur in my one-on-one Executive Coaching meetings and in facilitated small group and project team workshops. Clients reflect deeply to explore the implications, possibilities and meanings of moments of professional and personal significance throughout their life. The work we do together using a strengths-based approach to developing enhanced leadership includes questions not normally attended to in a typical working day.
It could be said that clients are reflecting on their moments of ‘virtuousness’ or ‘positive deviance’. But I rarely use those words in practice, and those of you with whom I worked might never have heard me use those terms.
Virtuousness and Positive Deviance
The theorists, if they were with us and observing these conversations, would say that people are talking about their moments of ‘positive deviance’ i.e. displays of excellence and of virtuousness which involve acting from values, virtues and strengths. Academics and researchers have shown that when people behave in this way organisations perform better and are more successful, including in times of setbacks and difficulty. The people themselves are able to find better solutions to problems. New insights create generative change.
Organisational virtuousness refers to collective behaviours that extend beyond what is normally expected, and these are depicted in Kim Cameron’s Positive Deviance Continuum. For example negative relationships are ‘harmful, normal relationship behaviour is ‘helpful’, and at the positive extreme of the continuum relationships are noted as ‘honouring’. Cameron noted that (and I am paraphrasing here) most leaders pay almost exclusive attention to the gap between what is going wrong and the mid-point on the continuum, represented by an absence of problems. On the other hand, the gap between the mid-point and the far right (extraordinarily positive performance) receives far less attention. This is the area which motivates change in organisations based on the pursuit of a greater good, a condition of virtuousness, the best that human beings aspire to be.
For more about the academics’ work on virtuousness, positive deviance, and Kim Cameron’s continuum, see these three articles which I wrote over the recent months:
Virtuous Organisations (August 2012)
Positive Deviance (September 2012)
Kim Cameron’s Deviance Continuum (October 2012)