Why being Youth Driven is Positively Deviant

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University of Michigan Center for Positive Organization students: Gabby, Jimin, Shazia and Adam

Over the past week we hosted a group of four students from the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organization program. Their charge was to conduct an action learning study on Neutral Zone’s “youth-driven” approach and to determine the extent to which this framework supports a ‘thriving’ organization, one that they term is ‘positively deviant’.   Positive deviance is the concept of using uncommon practices to find better solutions to problems than other groups who are addressing similar issues.

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), a sub-field in the area of Management and Organizations Studies, focuses on organizations that create positive work life and performance. Its aim comes from envisioning how organizations and the individuals within them function at their very best. It asks: how can organizations best foster the development of human strengths and virtues like resilience, integrity and compassion?

The UM student group uncovered many interesting POS concepts embedded in the culture at Neutral Zone and our youth driven spaces approach.   Some of the strengths they observed included:

  • Upward spirals – the ideas that positive emotions like joy, hope, optimism, love, contentment and gratitude breed more positivity; the students determined that this positivity helped to support an emotionally and psychologically safe environment for teens, further helping to promote a culture of youth-adult partnerships.
  • Bringing your whole self to work – the POS students observed that Neutral Zone promoted a culture for staff that allowed work and personal life to come together comfortably at the Center. This included Mary, our Visual Arts Advisor bringing her dog Moose to work or Lori, our Executive Director brainstorming at a Director’s meeting with her colleagues about how to address a childcare issue. This practice creates an authentic workplace that values staff personal lives and models for teens that our whole selves are present at the Zone.
  • Servant leadership – the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. This concept was observed between the teens and the adult staff/volunteers who support them, and amongst staff themselves.
  • Positive future image – pretty immediately after joining us for the week, POS students noticed our mission statement (plastered on our Board Room wall, on our business cards, at the bottom of meeting agendas) “Neutral Zone is a diverse, youth driven organization dedicated to promoting personal growth through artistic expression, community leadership and the exchange of ideas.” They also learned that this mission was created by teens.   Being positively deviant, we project a positive future and let our constituents (teens!) define it.

As I reflected with the POS students on their final day of action research, I found myself refreshed and energized by their enthusiasm, excitement and new framing of our mission and work.   Though we at Neutral Zone get great joy and gratification from our work, it is always energizing to have a new group observe and report on what they see at the organization.  We are proud to “thrive” and to be “positively deviant” and to have attracted four new fans from the UM Ross School of Business.

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