Positive Deviance for a Sustainable World

February 16, 2011

By Nardia Haigh, University of Massachusetts-Boston

The pursuit of sustainability has become a crucial concern for organizations. Companies have invested much to reduce their environmental impact and become good corporate citizens. This focus has produced significant outcomes, such as reduced pollution and an emphasis on corporate social responsibility. However, large-scale social and environmental issues still abound, as social inequities persist and environmental systems continue to be eroded.

What would happen if, rather than focusing on reducing negative impacts (that is, addressing negative deviance), organizations turned their energies towards creating social and environmental abundance (or, creating positive deviance)? The switch is one of turning attention away from becoming “less unsustainable” towards becoming “more sustainable.” It is at once a simple shift in thinking and a magnificent leap forward in practice.

Our review of business and sustainability research shows that “hybrid” organizations are making this leap. Hybrids are a cross between for-profit and non-profit, being simultaneously “market-oriented” and “mission-centered.” Hybrids develop “sustainability-driven” business models that propel social, environmental, and economic flourishing. One such company is Maggie’s Organics – an apparel company that sources organically grown cotton, and has established worker-owned sewing cooperatives in Nicaragua and North Carolina. The hybrid model has three basic elements:

  • Social change as organizational objective. Hybrids see positive social change as crucial to their viability; embed social and environmental aims into their mission; ensure leaders exemplify values that support the mission; and set appropriate time horizons for patient and autonomous development.
  • Mutually-beneficial relationships with suppliers and supplier communities, employees, and customers. Hybrids invest in personal relationships with suppliers beyond economic transactions; select employees who will maintain their sustainability identity; and maintain intimate relationships with customers through their products, which become a projection of customer values.
  • Progressive interaction with markets, competitors, and industry institutions. Hybrids do not develop their business model purely for themselves. Unlike traditional for-profit organizations, which use competition and political activity to protect their business model or market, hybrids use them to diffuse their model to markets, competitors, and institutions.

In sum, hybrid organizations demonstrate that free enterprise can operate in ways that actively rejuvenate environmental and social systems now and into the future.

For managers, pursuing sustainability through positive deviance and the hybrid form offers:

  • Opportunities to rethink how companies relate to society and the natural environment, the desired outcomes of those relationships, and metrics by which outcomes are appraised.
  • A basis from which to develop strategies geared towards creating social, environmental and economic abundance while providing high quality goods and services.

For further information:

Hoffman, A., & Haigh, N. (In press). Positive deviance for a sustainable world: Linking Sustainability and positive organizational scholarship. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), Handbook on Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Hoffman, A., Badiane, K., & Haigh, N. (In press). Hybrid organizations as agents of positive social change: Bridging the for-profit & non-profit divide. In K. Golden-Biddle & J. Dutton (Eds.), Using a positive lens to explore social change and organizations: Building a theoretical and research foundation. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.