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UT Professor Studies Deviance in the Workplace

Published: September 01, 2009
In the workplace, do you consider yourself a constructive deviant, a destructive deviant, a little of both or none of the above?

According to research by a University of Tampa professor, some of the most valuable individuals in an organization are both constructive and destructive deviants.

In a presentation at the Academy of Management Conference in early August, Bella Galperin, an associate professor of management, argued that deviance — defined as voluntary behavior that violates organizational norms and can threaten the well-being of an organization — can be constructive and functional for organizations, and employees who fail to follow the organizational norms can be the roots of successful innovations and champions of change.

“Employees who break the rules and cause harm to the organization are also your organization’s potential change agents. They will break the rules to increase the well-being of your organization,” Galperin said.

Currently, organizations have focused their efforts on identifying and reducing destructive deviants — potentially aggressive and dishonest employees. The costs associated with dysfunctional behavior in the workplace have been estimated in the billions.

But, developing constructive deviance may help secure a company’s position in the new economy, and spur innovation. This is especially true today, with the increased importance of the nation’s “creativity economy.”

“While it is important for organizations to make active efforts in decreasing the occurrence of deviant acts and preventing destructive behaviors, it is equally important for organizations to focus their energies on identifying the constructive deviants,” Galperin said. “These individuals can be change agents and bring innovation to your organization.”

Galperin realizes this is counter intuitive, as destructive deviants in the workplace can be difficult to manage and can burden morale. But, the goal is to be able to identify deviants and effectively guide and supervise such employees.

“Successful management of deviance may lead to the development of trailblazers instead of rogue employees,” Galperin said.

Galperin, who also researches ethnic entrepreneurship, cited both Bernie Ebbers, former Worldcom CEO, and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, as destructive and constructive deviants, respectively. Both transformed their companies to reach new heights and both deviated from the mainstream. However, today one is revered, and one is serving time in prison.

Galperin has published articles on workplace deviance in The International Journal of Human Resource Management, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings.