Why School Leaders should pay attention to 'Positive Outliers' in their organizations

The Idea: School Leaders need to look out for ‘Positive Outliers’ - the few team members that tend to be unconventional problem solvers in their workplaces, even with the same challenges and resources as their peers. Leaders must recognize the potential of their ideas and knowledge and leverage them for solving the many complex challenges that schools encounter.

A personal anecdote: 
In online school, our team has been watching classroom videos of other teachers to learn from each other. When we introduced breakout rooms for peer learning, we were suddenly faced with a problem: the breakout rooms were not recorded once students left the main call. This meant that in any classroom recording with group work/ break out rooms, the viewer would have no idea what the group task was and what kind of discussion was going on. Instead they would just watch a period of silence in the main call the entire time.  
So, we took this issue for discussion to our Leaders PLC (Professional Learning Community). Within moments of describing the challenge to them, two leaders told me that in each of their Teacher PLC meetings a teacher had already found a workaround for that problem. They simply asked one group not to leave the main call to join their breakout rooms, but instead stay on the main call and continue their group discussion. This way the work and conversations of one student group was visible to the viewer instead of a blank screen. We shared this with the rest of the team and within 2 days everyone was doing this.

What was the point of sharing this story?
For almost every problem, there will be a few teachers (or ‘positive outliers’) who are facing the problem first hand and have figured out a solution. This is what leaders need to pay attention to.

What are Positive Outliers?

Positive Outliers are those few team members who are curious and always tinkering around, trying to find a better way to do something. Even when they have not been asked. They take initiative, learn new things and encourage others to the same.

I adapted the term ‘Positive Outlier’ from the term ‘Positive Deviant’. I read about ‘Positive Deviants’ in the book ‘The Power of Positive Deviance: How unlikely innovators solve the world's toughest problems - Richard Pascale, Sternin Jerry Sternin Monique, which talks about “the few individuals in a group who find unique ways to look at, and overcome, seemingly insoluble difficulties. By seeing solutions where others don't, positive deviants spread and sustain needed change.” Though this book is set in a medical context, I believe the wisdom completely applies in an educational context as well. Other people have touched on this as well, such as Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, who call them ‘Hacktivists’ in their book Humanocracy. And several people also talk about valuing the insight of frontline team members in organizations.

Why should you pay attention to Positive Outliers?

Leaders don’t have the ‘in context’ perspective of teachers: Leaders don’t have the rich, first-hand experiences of the teachers/ frontline team in the context of the problem being tackled. Therefore they may not have the same insight as the teachers and the Positive Outliers among them.

Leaders don’t have enough time: New challenges pop up everyday in workplaces, especially in human-centered, educational organizations. The context for each challenge varies from younger to older students, teacher to teacher, subject to subject etc. What tends to happen is that the leaders at the top receive a steady stream of problems. It is easy then for leaders to fall into a habit of responding to these problems by dispensing an equally steady stream of advice for all the problems. In large organizations, this is not an effective way for leaders to problem solve because of how time consuming it is. And for the reason in point 1, these solutions may not always be the best solutions.

The insight and action of Positive Outliers: When a Positive Outlier teacher comes up with a solution it is usually not just a unique idea but also a practical one that has been implemented within the actual context itself without any additional resources. The value of this is much greater than a hypothetical solution that has emerged from theoretical problem solving, without being tested.

How can Leaders (and Teachers) leverage the power of Positive Outliers in their organizations?

Leaders have to first notice these team members, learn from their insights, set up ways to amplify and share their work across the school so others can learn from it too. The opposite of this is spending your time policing the negative outliers - read more in my blog on Policing vs Propelling. From a more proactive lens, Leaders need to invest time in creating opportunities to interact with and listen to the frontline team to pick up insights. Leaders must also build a culture of sharing. They can achieve both of these by setting up scheduled spaces for reflection and sharing of ideas across teams. 

I know that I have personally witnessed the power of Positive Outliers many, many times in the last 5 years. Not just for small problems but their insights have proved valuable for solving more complex problems too. Hope you listen, learn from and amplify the work of the Positive Outliers in your organization!


  1. A good read .... Thanks for sharing Ms. Radhika... It's quite insightful 👏🤗😊


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