Two golden retriever dogs in a puddle as the sun sets.
Otis and Saul enjoying their deviance.

I was a “risky” hire.  Not quite cut from the same cloth. A slightly irregular education. A different sort of professional background. An advocate for better, maybe not anonymous enough…someone with an opinion.

The system, like any mature system, naturally tried to reject me. I failed exams for subjective reasons. Was disqualified based on narrow interpretations. Limited opportunities due to my background and maybe even gender and age.  In fact, I am pretty sure that if the HR System was a person I would have grounds for a complaint. Alas, the system is not a person and harassment only applies to people.

The people I have met are polite, concerned and friendly. Most of them want to do a good job.  Some of them have seen beyond the risk and helped me, and I thank you very much for that.

Now that I am in the system, I realize that I am a bit of a deviant for the same reasons that I was a risky hire.

If you imagine government organizations as living organisms and apply some biological logic, it is not hard to see how they would naturally try to reject anything foreign. And in some parts of government culture, I am definitely foreign.  Luckily in other parts of government culture, I fit right in, in fact, I am not as “deviant” as some!

Nevertheless, the places where I do fit in are generally bucking the system, or at least trying to hack it. Their directors and managers are committed to finding a way to do the right thing today, even when the rules are trying to force them to do the right thing for yesterday. It is not easy, they have to work hard, be persistent and continually challenge existing thinking. All before getting on with their mission. 

There is a point to this rant. In his seminal book on organizational culture, Organizational Culture and Leadership Paperback,  Edgar H. Schein talks about how people that first exhibit new traits become different than their co-workers. In most groups of people, this deviance from the norm results in marginalization—cultures by their nature seek the harmony of homogeneity.  Because of this human dynamic, if an organization wants to change it needs to protect the positive deviants from the forces that would see them banished.

The forces that marginalize deviants come in all shapes and sizes. Some are hidden in cognitive biases, others come out as classification, age, level, gender or discipline discrimination. Still, others manifest as well-intentioned policies and rules with narrow interpretations that result in prejudicial side effects.  Risk aversion plays a role here as well. Managers often equate risk with being challenged and the easiest way not to be challenged is to do things the way we have always done them. Deviants are risky by definition, even if they are positive, so the logical path is to get rid of them or not hire them in the first place. 

I think of myself as a positive deviant, and I know there are hundreds, if not thousands of public servants that feel the same way. If the public service is to remain relevant in a different world, it must be different and to be different it needs positive deviants, not former employees. 

Protect the positive deviants! 

About Thom Kearney

Change agent, teacher, arts, science, open government, father, mentor, storyteller, husband, dog owner,collaborator, not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Culture, Leadership, Positive Change, Rant, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Chrystia Chudczak says:

    “If the public service is to remain relevant in a different world, it must be different and to be different it needs positive deviants, not former employees.” Hey Thom – good article. But what does this statement really mean? Because former employees could be positive deviants who that didn’t find a place where their deviance mattered, connected, or was seen as valuable in public service. And they left – or were forced out. So let’s stop discriminating against who’s in, out or on the fringe related to the system. Let’s just open the public service ecosystem to those who can make positive change for Canadians, and not just to those who want it for themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks Chrystia, as a former employee (manager, and executive) forced out for being a positive deviant. One thing that I learned that I would do over again if I could (and might, yet), is to not treat innovation as a battle, particularly in the area of people management. Those in power came into power in a particular environment that rewarded particular actions and behaviours. A shifting culture is now, in many cases, making those particular actions and behaviours less desirable. But what incentive do these folks have to change? They got where they got to based on those actions and behaviours. If anything, it’s only natural for them to double down on them when their power feels threatened. I’ve seen this manifest on many occasions but I didn’t know what it meant or how to handle it at the time.

    Another lesson I learned was not to judge people in power who are seen to be holding down innovation, or positive deviance. I would judge them as bad people or ineffective leaders, which then made it difficult for me to work with them because I would spend time looking for evidence to reinforce my biases, rather than looking for inclusive ways to solve problems.

    Sure, I innovated some while I was in the PS, but had I adopted a slightly different mindset, I could have done much more. So I would advise to view change not as a mission one fraught with conflict against an immovable system, but rather, an opportunity to build better relationships and learn more about the culture every day, in an effort to provide the best possible service to Canadians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thom Kearney says:

      Hi Chris,
      Thanks for sharing. I agree entirely that collaboration and relationships are the way to go – better service, better results and a better culture, one conversation at a time!


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