“Maybe deviance is not for you. Maybe you weren’t born with that gene. Tough – you have to embrace it anyway, at least once in a while.” – Dr. Todd Dewett

Success is about hard work, expertise, and positive relationships – right? Yes, mostly, but there is one other component they don’t teach you about in business school. Most professional coaches unfortunately neglect this topic as well. Systems are often quite difficult to navigate. They can be political and they can be heavily bureaucratic. Thus, beyond positivity and all the rest, you occasionally need to be deviant.

There are six levels of deviance. The first few do not require actual deception, though they sometimes require an apology. The last few are only for those with strong reputations who are willing to risk a lot, because deception is necessary.

I don’t wish to glorify deviance. However, sometimes it is the wise choice. It’s also important to note that deviance does not imply a lack of integrity or a lack of respect for the team or the organization. It’s simply true that sometimes people and systems are blind, too slow, and not able to accommodate new ideas that are desperately needed.

Professional deviance is simply behavior that will knowingly cause friction, a little or a lot, as you pursue some highly valued outcome. Word to the wise, don’t be deviant simply in support of your own personal goals. Only choose this route when serving laudable goals on behalf of the team or the organization.

Here we go. In order from least dangerous to most dangerous, these are the six levels of deviance: questioning or disagreeing, advocating for change, resisting compromise, using new methods, breaking a rule, and going rogue.

The first three require no deception and, in fact, in some higher-performing organizations are viewed as fairly normal and healthy. However, they do have costs. So, remember that based on your track record and reputation, we all have a limited ability to deviate without experiencing serious consequences.

Let’s start with questioning or expressing disagreement. Yes, depending on where you work these seemingly tame acts can be dangerous. Not everyone comfortably tolerates being questioned. Some people always take it personally when you disagree – especially when you do it in a public forum.

2016 Photo of Dr. Todd Dewett on HRExaminer.com

Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Advocating for change is quite similar. It’s deviant because you’re upsetting the apple cart. This means you are supporting an issue that might ruffle feathers, asking others for an above and beyond effort, or otherwise be threatening to one or more people. Even under the best of conditions (e.g., you’ve selected a good issue, have the support of others, and have social capital to burn), making the case for change is very difficult.

The final deception-free option is choosing not to compromise. Some call it going to the matt or filibustering. The heated conversation has subsided and someone calls for a decision to be made. Some in opposition to the favored idea crumble and fall in line. Not you. You want to make a point, to do what is right! You refuse to agree. The group must now out-vote you to move on. For better or worse, your opposition is on the record.

When these three types of deviance are used calmly and selectively, you have the opportunity to create several positive outcomes. First and most importantly, you might move a particular issue forward in the direction you desire. Further, you have shown your strength and put others on notice that you’re tough and willing to speak up. Of course, it’s also true that each of these three might taint you in the eyes of a few observers. That’s the nature of deviance. It polarizes.

Doing the right thing and making change happen can be messy. How you feel about that is up to you. The good news is that with strong individual performance and good judgement about which flags to wave, you’ll recover just fine when things don’t work out. Unless you choose approaches that require deception. The three higher levels of deviance risk some or all of your social capital, will require some form of apology, and recovering may be very difficult or impossible.

First, is using a new method. There is a task to be done. How to do it is well established. We all know the process, the methodology, the steps. We know who to keep in the loop and when. We are very clear about which resources and partners to use. However, you see a way to do things differently and better. You don’t want to fight with the boss or the bureaucracy. So, you just act. You reconfigure the process, change out a key resource, or decide to work with a new and better vendor. Technically, you did not break a rule, and maybe you produced some benefit (e.g., time saved, quality improved, money saved), but you will definitely face an angry boss since you broke precedent and acted on your own.

When needed, the next level of risk involves more overtly breaking a rule. Again, there is a known way to do something, but you see the opportunity to do it better. You hire your preferred candidate without posting the job as required by human resources. You purchase something your team needs without approval. You promise the customer a product that does something yours can’t, knowing you can make it work with a few tweaks even though it’s against policy. Way to go rule breaker. Get ready for the consequences.

Finally, when you’re willing to risk all of your social capital, you can consider going rogue. Now you’re breaking multiple rules, protocols, and precedents. Maybe you ignore a key committee and move forward with a program that’s not been officially vetted. Or maybe you secretly create an entirely new product via outsourcing and never tell the organization until it’s ready to hit the market. Who knows. It doesn’t have to be one big thing. It could be that you just operate as a leader on your own terms, happily allowing your crew to violate the dress code, never use the official employee evaluation form, decide on their own vacation policy, etc.

Whether your use of deviance comes in the form of disagreeing or rogue behavior, get ready, because the outcomes are quite predictable: over time you will create fans and supporters, rivals and detractors, notable wins, and painful losses. It’s impossible, however, to predict which specific type of outcome will occur with each attempt.

To increase your odds of surviving as a professional deviant, I want you to remember a few things. First, nothing helps you get away with questionable behavior like success. Thus, your goal is to learn how to use your limited social capital effectively. You need to know which fights are worth it. To be blunt, for every ten fights you feel you must undertake, only one or two are really worth the risk. For you idealists, this will hurt, but I want you to be practical and think about your chances.

Choose fights with difficult, but not impossible odds. To the extent that the odds look long, bolster your chances by learning how to build coalitions before you take action. If you’re walking into a fight, bring friends. Learn how to sell your position to other interested parties. Seek to position your pitch in terms of how they will benefit and how the organization will benefit. Remember, it can’t be all about you.

Then recognize that you can’t win them all. That’s fine. Beyond securing a few great wins and building useful coalitions, you survive this reality by learning the art of explanations and apologies. Compelling and believable explanations for decisions does not make your detractors love what you’ve done. They do however add a little clarity, context, and perspective that allows them to see you as more than just a loose cannon.

You can further manage the damage through apologies. A concise and sincere apology goes a long way towards repairing reputations and relationships. However, let’s be clear – you can’t apologize if you don’t mean it, you can’t apologize frequently, and you can’t apologize too long after the incident in question. Keep it simple: offer a legitimate and timely explanation, don’t lie, don’t blame, don’t make excuses, and be sure to recognize that you understand the mess you made. Assuming you follow my advice about choosing battles selectively, a good apology will allow you to retain just enough social capital to start thinking about your next move.

Maybe deviance is not for you. Maybe you weren’t born with that gene. Tough – you have to embrace it anyway, at least once in a while. Real change and progress require more than hard work. They require creativity. They require sacrifice. They also very often require some amount of deviance.
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