To Action: Combat Negative Exceptionalism

My current listen is Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It’s a refreshing look at the world – challenging many commonly held beliefs (in fact, showing that we often fare worse in tests of our world-view than chimpanzees do…).

The underlying theme of the book is one of challenging unwarranted pessimism.

We tend to think things are worse than they actually are. Part of the problem here is our (all too human) tendency to generalise from the exceptional – especially things that are exceptionally bad. Hans’ message is that we are faring better in topics like global poverty, child mortality, education and similar human development metrics than most of us realise.

But there was a simple line in the book that had me thinking…

To paraphrase: “when we think things are worse than they are, simple statistics can be refreshing, even inspiring.”

How often are we met with pessimism in our organisations? – especially when driving change. Those people that ignore the 50 good things that have been achieved and focus in on the three out-of-norm negative experiences.

That’s negative exceptionalism at work.

But what can we do?

I’m going to have to disagree with Hans a little here. It’s not the stats that will make a difference. It’s the story alongside them. It’s stats within context. Even in his own book Hans tells the stories of the stats. He paints pictures of various different realities, and how those realities have changed over time.

So this week:

Find two simple stats that you can wrap in story to proactively combat the pessimism facing your change.


To Ponder: Foster Positive Exceptionalism

Can we harness the human tendency to generalise from the exceptional for our benefit?

I believe so.

Do you think Google are exceptional at everything they do?

What about Tesla?


Or are these companies filled with primarily normal people, just like every other company? The likelihood that these companies hire entirely from the right side of the bell-curve is incredibly unlikely.

And yet, the strength of the brand of these companies has a flow-on effect on our view of those that work there. There’s an inferred exceptionalism at play. Those companies automatically boost the resumes of those who work there.

The good news is that same positive exceptionalism is capturable at the local level for our changes.

The art is in creating positive disruption.

I’ll quote a little from my book, Valuable Change here:

Consider the last time you recommended something to someone. I’d bet it was because your experience with that thing surpassed your expectations. Or put another way, it fell on the right side of the expectation spectrum (shown below).

Every notch towards Over-Expectation is a minor disruption in someone’s mind. It’s a subtle re-adjustment. A little pleasant surprise. Kind of like finding a $50 note in the back pocket of a pair of pants you haven’t worn in 6 months.

And how do people process and reconcile this mental readjustment?

By talking to others about it.

And that’s exactly what we want!

Your job with your team(s) is to be bold and do things a little differently. Be cutting edge and subvert the standard systems. Or if non-compliance is the norm, then cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’. If the culture is typically hierarchical, then create the feel of a flat structure and run an open floor. Or if the organisation is already typically flat and democratic, then have a strong, clear, decision-focused approach.

No matter your move, make it feel natural! Your change needs to feel different. Different enough that people just HAVE to talk about it with their peers to enable their minds to truly process it.

This is positive disruption. And this is what we’re after.

Driving a change often gives you a little more ‘artistic license’. How can you leverage that artistic license to create positive disruption within your organisation?