Finding the Cherry on Top

June 27, 2014

By: Allison Sheehan

It’s a hot summer day, and all you want is vanilla ice cream. So you go to the ice cream shop, and you see they have vanilla ice cream. You’re happy. They have the ice cream you wanted, so now you can end this incessant craving you’ve been having. But wait – now you see that they offer over twenty different ice cream toppings. Instead of getting plain vanilla ice cream, you decide to add cookie dough, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and a cherry on top. You would have been perfectly happy if you had walked away with your plain vanilla ice cream, but now that you have all these toppings, you’re even happier.

Let’s play out this scenario a little differently. Instead of an ice cream consumer, you’re an employee at a large company. Last month wasn’t a very good month for you. Your sales were down, and although you got a few new customers, you still didn’t reach your monthly quota. After a long meeting with your boss and associates, in which you discuss last month’s problems and create a new action plan, you’re ready for this month. By the end of it, you have reached your quota and you and your boss are happy. Now that you and your team have reached your monthly quota, the business can be profitable and efficient. However, unlike the ice cream scenario where you decided to go even further and order toppings, you decide to stop at your reached quota. You’re not worried about a greater good or opportunity to create tremendous results; you’re only worried about reaching your assigned goal. Yes, the company is going to continue to run efficiently as long as you continue to reach your quota, but no one is going to receive the joy of that ice cream sundae with a cherry on top.

We can also play out this scenario in the medical world. You’re a physiological researcher, and your job is to study illnesses and figure out how to get back to health the people who are affected by them. You’re job isn’t to focus on what’s going right with people’s health and what makes them so healthy – you only worry about what’s going wrong. Once you’ve discovered this, your job is done, and you’re onto your next assignment. Once again, the focus is on something that’s wrong that needs to be brought back to the norm, but there is no focus on what has been going right and can be made even better.

Why is it that people tend to focus on these deficit gaps instead of abundance gaps? Kim Cameron, professor at the Ross School of Business, describes this phenomenon using a “deviance continuum.” Although the word deviant can have a negative connotation, it simply means, “departing from usual or accepted behaviors.” On the farthest left end of the continuum is “negative deviance,” on the far right is “positive deviance,” and in the middle is “normal.” The far left is where one would pay attention to illness, inefficiency, and errors. In between “negative deviance” and “normal,” there is a space referred to as “deficit gaps.” This is where people focus exclusively on what is going wrong, and the “normal” point is where there’s an absence of this problem. The gap between “normal” and “positive deviance” is referred to as an “abundance gap.” This gap is between “successful performance and spectacular or extraordinary positive performance.” This gap does not receive much attention or research; however, being on this right side of the continuum “implies that leaders in organizations not only focus on being profitable, effective, efficient, or reliable in performance, but they also focus on being extraordinary, flawless, or benevolent.” When they’re being positively deviant, the outcomes not only benefit the organization, but also “make possible the success of others outside the organization as well.”

Focusing on abundance and affecting the greater good is what yields positively deviant results. When this is achieved, one can feel vitality, flow, and benevolence in their work. Eventually, one can also achieve virtuousness, which is “the highest human condition, or the best that human beings aspire to be.” So although many people tend to stop when they’ve achieved “normality,” or where they believe they’re being efficient and profitable, research has shown the benefits of going even further, and focusing on virtuousness. Instead of constantly focusing on the deficit gaps of what is going wrong, there’s something to be said about focusing on the abundance gaps, and what you or your company can do to flourish. Companies who have taken on the abundance approach perform remarkably better in the long run. It all comes down to the question of would you rather be “normal,” or lacking a problem, or would you rather achieve flow in your work, and affect something outside of your company and research? Would you rather have plain vanilla ice cream, or would you rather walk away with vanilla ice cream, loaded with your favorite toppings?

Allison just finished her freshman year in the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts. She heard about the Center from a Peer Advisor and was drawn to it because of its new and unique way of looking at organizations. Now she is part of the Social Media and Blogging Team as a Summer Fellow. She is excited to be a part of the fellows program and the environment and to learn about all of the aspects of the Center’s work, while discovering how to put positive meaning and leadership into the workplace.