How Small Acts of Positivity Can Change Your Company for the Better

How small, deviant acts of positivity can change your company culture for the better.

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Catchbox - The world's first throwable mic system.

Last fall I attended the DisruptHR conference, a global event organized in Victoria by Engaged HR. Nine speakers took the stage, each with a razor-thin five minutes to engage the audience and deliver big insights. When Nanaimo-based consultant Deborah Connors emerged from behind the curtain to talk about how small actions can lead to big changes, I knew I’d found our next breakthrough idea.

“I want you to think back to the best job you ever had,” Connors began. “What was it that you loved so much about it?”

She gave us a couple of seconds to think, then put the key in the lock. “I’ll bet it’s because you felt good when you went to work,” she said. “The culture is what we remember about a great workplace.”

She’s right. A great work culture is where people are engaged, contributing, making decisions, patting each other on the back, laughing, collaborating and looking for solutions instead of complaining about problems.

So how do you get to there from here? You deviate. In a positive way.

What is Positive Deviance?

Connors, president of Well-Advised Consulting and author of A Better Place to Work: Daily Practices that Transform Culture, defines positive deviance as the act of regularly taking small but meaningful actions that inject positivity into the workplace.

These actions must be both intentional and honourable, and they must be a departure from your organizational norms in order to be truly called positive deviations.

In business, it all starts with the upstream culture — and that starts with you as a leader because everything flows from the culture you and your leadership team establish.

In negative workplaces — or those on a negative slide — we tend to see downstream mitigation of culture problems. Take, for example, an employee whose job it is to manage attendance, leaves of absence or return-to-work programs.

“If you have to manage attendance, there’s something wrong with the culture,” says Connors. “Whereas if people are just off when they’re sick, you don’t have a problem.”

People typically lose their enthusiasm at work because of their relationship with their immediate supervisor, Connors notes. “Yet we’re working on that downstream.”

Find the Fix

The fix is upstream, where you create the “feel” of your workplace. Here’s how it works: instead of putting out little fires everywhere, light little fires everywhere. The purpose is to expand feelings of belonging, purpose and harmony. Offer these to your people constantly, and in return, they’ll give more of themselves to your organization. As an added bonus, they’ll help you light more little fires.

In the U.K., positive deviance has been the driver of the National Health Service’s gradual decline in patient deaths across its hospitals and health institutions, where a 5-per-cent boost in positivity among work teams corresponded to a 3.3-per-cent decrease in patient mortality. Sounds small, but it adds up to 40 lives a year.

Here are a few positive behaviours that are intentional, honourable and that deviate from the norm. Pick a couple and try them in your office:

Find ways to develop your own and your team’s emotional intelligence (EI). Talk about EI concepts like motivation, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. Bring a professional in to help your team develop these competencies.

Spend time with your employees to discover their purpose. Start with ‘What’s our purpose as an organization?’ This helps you articulate your vision, mission and values, and it should always be done with the group, never delivered from the top down. When everyone buys in, it simplifies future discussions when things crop up that don’t fit with your values.

Practice mindfulness. Invite a coach to guide your team in mindfulness practices or even meditation. Research shows this has been a game changer for blue-chip executives. Why wouldn’t it be for you and your team?

Make gratitude a focus. Research shows people are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else. Yet a simple thank you to a colleague who has done a fine job goes a long way. “The practice of writing down three or more things you’re grateful for is the easiest thing that, over time, increases positive emotion,” Connors says. “Start a meeting with a round of gratitude. When you do that, you shift the culture of the meeting.” Or try a gratitude wall. At Starfish Medical’s meetings in Victoria, staff toss around a Catchbox, the world’s first throwable microphone, so they can share kudos for jobs well done.

Adopt appreciative inquiry. Ask, “Who are we when we’re at our best?” instead of “What are the issues?” Change the framing. Try this at a retreat, where people have a chance to describe themselves when they’re at their best. Then watch them live up to it.

Reflect on your own hypocrisies. Are you replying to emails on a Sunday afternoon when you’ve assured your staff they don’t have to? As Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said, “What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” Remember, you are always on display as a leader — and your behaviour begets your team’s behaviour.

Get Engaged

Positive deviance should not be confused with whistle-blowing, corporate citizenship or corporate responsibility. Rather, it concerns actions with honourable intentions that are done for the sake of . . . well, being honourable. And making things feel better.

And isn’t that the way you want your people to feel? 

Alex Van Tol works with organizations to shape and communicate their brand stories. From real estate to tech, she uncovers what makes organizations tick — and what can help them grow.

This article is from the February/March 2019 issue of Douglas.