When Workplace Deviance Is a Good Thing

Social Norms (or norms for short), are the unwritten laws that govern behaviour in a group environment. As Cristina Bicchieri puts it, norms are like:

‘ the grammar of society…like a grammar, a system of norms specifies what is acceptable and what is not in a social group.’

In an organisational context, norms can apply to multiple levels of a business – from business unit through to the entire company (and even the industry in which it operates), and are an important part of an effective and functional organisation.

Norm deviation, for example, has been associated with harmful behaviours such as theft, fraud and absenteeism, and is estimated to cost businesses up to $200 billion per year.

Although typically associated with negative effects, however, there are occasions when workplace deviance can actually contribute positively to an organisation. This idea is captured in the concept of ‘constructive deviance.’

Constructive Deviance

According to recent research conducted by Abhijeet Vadera and colleagues, constructive workplace deviance can be defined as:

“behaviours that deviate from the norms of the reference group such that they benefit the reference group and conform to globally held beliefs and values”

Based on an extensive review of the literature, the authors identified a number of behaviours that comprise constructive deviance:

  • Taking charge: Voluntary efforts to enact organisational change
  • Creative performance: Generation of new ideas and solutions
  • Expressing voice: Constructively challenging the status quo
  • Whistle-blowing: Disclosing illegal or unethical behaviours
  • Extra-role behaviours: Positive discretionary behaviours beyond role expectations
  • Prosocial behaviours: Behaviour intended to promote the welfare of others
  • Prosocial rule breaking: Deliberately breaking rules with the intent to benefit the organisation or its clients
  • Counter-role behavior: Positive discretionary behaviours that is beyond even a managers’ conceptualisation of ‘the ideal employee’
  • Issue selling: Upwardly influencing the organisational agenda

As can be seen from this list, workplace deviance can lead to some very desirable outcomes in a working world that increasingly demands creativity, innovation, discretion and ownership from employees.

To help identify the triggers and contexts for constructive workplace deviance, Vadera and colleagues undertook a review of 152 empirical articles across 59 different journals, and analysed the various predictors of constructively deviant behaviours.

From their review, the authors identified three key mediators – Intrinsic Motivation, Felt Obligation, and Psychological Empowerment – each of which explained a set of specific behavioural predictors at the individual, supervisor, and organisational levels.

1.  Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to behaving in a particular way because of the inherent satisfaction of the activity, not the external consequences of it.

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Individuals who are highly intrinsically motivated are expected to engage in constructively deviant behaviour as they are more likely to take risks and explore new ways of doing things.

In the context of constructive deviance, intrinsic motivation is influenced by two situational features:

  1. Innovative cognitive style – Individuals with a predisposition for this style of thinking  tend to redefine problems and seek to generate new ideas
  2. Transformational leadership – Transformational leaders lead by challenging the status quo,  and  focus on the development of followers. This style encourages people to deviate from norms by motivating and encouraging challenge behaviours, and emphasising the intrinsically motivating aspects of a role

2.  Felt Obligation

Felt obligation describes an individual’s feelings of obligation to contribute or reciprocate a positive contribution to another person. Obligation of this type usually only occurs in a positive and friendly organisational context, meaning that in these environments people are likely to reciprocate in ways that benefit the wider group and its members – even if this means deviating from the norms of that group.

Four themes are proposed to capture the situational features leading to felt obligation and hence constructive deviance:

  1. Positive job attitudes – People who are highly satisfied with their job are more likely to express voice and engage in extra-role behaviours
  2. Supervisor support – Supervisors who listen to employees and take action to address ideas expressed, and who lead in a non-controlling way, give employees the requisite freedom to be more open with challenge and creative in their performance. Similarly, a relationship of high quality exchange between leader and follower can encourage creativity, whistle-blowing, and challenge/voice behaviours
  3. Group identification, norms and support – Attachment to work groups impacts the degree to which people feel obligated to reciprocate on contributions. Group norms, and support from colleagues also impacts the degree to which people are inclined to express voice.
  4. Organisational culture, climate and support – Culture has been shown to impact whistle-blowing, creativity and voice. Perceptions of procedural justice, meanwhile, are related to taking charge, while organisational support for creative performance can promote such behaviour

3.  Psychological Empowerment

Psychological empowerment is an umbrella terms referring to those things that empower or strengthen an individual in a way that enables them to undertake constructively deviant behaviours.

A number of individual difference variables, as well as supervisor characteristics contribute to constructive deviance via psychological empowerment:

  1. Individual differences – The degree to which individuals engage in constructively deviant behaviours is influenced by a number of personal characteristics such as their self-worth, degree of extraversion, proactivity and propensity towards risk. People high on these traits are more likely to challenge the status quo in pursuit of their goals, express voice, and take risks to be creative
  2. Transformational leadership – Just as they are important to increasing the intrinsic motivation of employees, transformational leaders can also provide experiences to employees that fortify them and create psychological empowerment, leading to behaviours such as expressing voice
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Based on these findings, it is clear that managers would do well to focus their efforts on adopting a transformational leadership style, and supporting employees through high-quality exchange relationships and non-controlling management in order to empower and motivate.

Similarly, through cultivating a procedurally just organisation, and one where challenge and creativity are supported, managers can influence the felt obligation of staff and give employees the ‘permission’ to be creative and express voice – two very desirable qualities in any organisation.

It should be noted, however, that although the model described by the authors in this study does do a good job of integrating a variety of research into a coherent single view of the relationships between situation and constructive deviance, the model is still hypothetical. Additional work is required to test and extend the findings, and to better understand some of the unexplored questions about workplace deviance such as how constructive and non-constructive deviance relate and interact.

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Andrew is a full-time Management Consultant and part-time blogger who loves getting at the heart what makes businesses successful and customers happy. Read more about Andrew at his website andrewcomensoli.com

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  1. Great article, sir! I really appreciate your objectivity in all of your posts.

    It appears as if we can gain a lot of good from constructive deviance. Thank you for shifting my awareness and describing how we can take advantage of those behaviors.

  2. So employees can be constructively deviant and I suppose destructively deviant. And being constructively deviant tends to depend on the individual’s personality, and their environment (culture), and how management deals with all of the above.

    Fascinating!

    It kind of reminds me of some anecdotal (and maybe even some empirical) evidence of people who have higher levels of disagreeability being more likely to be successful, and earner higher salaries.

    1. Thanks for the comment Stephen. You are correct in your interpretation – whether someone breaks the rules for good or bad depends on the above factors.

      Your anecdotal evidence of the relationship between agreeableness and salary also appears to have some substance. This article documents some research that shows that (for men at least) there appears to be a correlation between being disagreeable and salary. Fascinating indeed!

        1. Unfortunately the study was first and foremost a literature review to guide the development of a hypothetical model of constructive deviance – no meta-analysis was performed. Having said that, the article does detail a number of findings which suggest gender may be an important variable. For example, there are a few studies that have found a relationship between being male and constructively deviant behaviours such as whistle-blowing (Miceli & Near, 1988), expression of voice (e.g., Detert & Burris, 2007), creativity (Zhou, 1998) and others.

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