Every Team Needs a Deviant

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The Deviant

I recently read an interview with leading Organizational Psychologist Richard Hackman. He shared observations on effective teams based on years of research. One team concept stood out to me above the rest. He explained that every effective team needs a deviant. A deviant is the one person who will challenge the process. When everyone on the team is dreaming about how to build a great building, they’re the person who will ask, “But, why are we even building a building in the first place”? They’re the pebble in your team’s shoe and the itch on your back you can’t quite reach.


His research has shown that teams with a deviant outperformed those without one and had more innovative ideas. Deviants will raise new questions and force a team to look at an idea forwards, backwards, inside and out. A team with no deviant can work on a project and end up with something no one agrees with or thinks is the best product. But, for the sake of peace teammates went along in the process. Deviants won’t let that happen. They bravely say what everyone might be thinking. This challenge creates something better and more innovative than if they had said nothing.


Deviants add a challenge to any team. They can create positive team conflict, but conflict nonetheless. They could be pigeon-holed as a troublemaker and determined to be difficult to work with. Because they ask difficult questions that team members may not want to hear, “many team leaders crack down on deviants and try to get them to stop asking difficult questions, maybe even kicking  them off the team” (2016, p. 5).

Team Deviant or Team Destroyer 

Hackman did specify that not every team troublemaker should be diagnosed as a valued deviant. There are some people who are just not good team players, they are team destroyers. Team destroyers refuse to work well with others and are disinterested in finding a team solution. They find teamwork painful, boring, and hurt the whole team process. Hackman found it important to keep team destroyers off any team! If a person isn’t engaged in the team process, the team will suffer and not accomplish it’s goal effectively.

Mechanisms of Discontent

It’s interesting that in Collins and Porras research on great companies, they found that the best companies built in mechanisms of discontent. They observed, “Comfort is not the objective in a visionary company. Indeed, visionary companies install powerful mechanisms to create discomfort- to obliterate complacency- and thereby stimulate change and improvement” (1994, p. 187).

The Takeaway

When leading a team, be thoughtful before shutting down that one guy or girl who keeps asking the tough questions. Although those tough questions may add complexity to the team’s work, those questions may be important and ultimately helpful. If the deviant it more of a disengaged team destroyer, get them off the team. Discontent, whether in your team, or business can lead to more innovation, creativity, and ultimately the most effective outcome.

Do you have any examples of a team deviant versus a team destroyer? 

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Collins, J. & Porras, J. (1994). Build to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: Harper Collins.

Harvard Business Review. (2009). Why teams don’t work. (May).