My Experience of Positive Deviance as a Practitioner


Author: Michèle Dabaghian

M. Dabaghian Advisory,

International Marketing & Communications, Change Management & Business Development

Michele is a multicultural and versatile senior advisor in international business development, sales & marketing and change management with a proven track record of successful achievements across the Middle East, India, the Gulf Cooperation Council, European and African countries.


I first came across the concept of Positive Deviance (PD) in the context of the thesis that I wrote as part of the CCC Consulting and Coaching for Change course 1.

I had decided to explore how Saudi Arabian women become leaders in their country.  My interest in this topic emerged in light of the ongoing reforms which have been revolutionising the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2017, when the arrival of the 32 year old Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman instigated numerous decrees that would allow Saudi Arabia to diversify its oil-driven economy.  A series of social reforms has begun to ease women’s condition in this religious state that is underpinned by Wahabism – a radical form of Sunni Islam.

These newly-promulgated decrees cover civil and social aspects of life, such as lifting the ban on women’s driving, allowing them to attend sporting events in the national stadium, etc. 

In addition, it’s important to note that as part of the 2030 Vision of the Kingdom2, the female workforce is envisaged to increase to 30% by 2030.  (vs. 17% in 2017)

Why Positive Deviance?

When I started exploring existing literature around women’s leadership in Saudi Arabia, I was struck by the fact that despite the stringency of the Saudi regime and its cultural constraints, some women had been successful over the last few decades in becoming business leaders in one way or another. I realised I could not ignore these exceptions, the ‘silver lining’, those few outliers who had somehow managed to manoeuvre within or alongside the system to become successful leaders and entrepreneurs – and yet remain in tune with their society, proudly claiming their culture and their national values.  This intriguing question led me to consider the potential existence of an underlying PD behaviour within the system.  In order to find an answer, I focused my research question on how a minority of Saudi women leaders build and preserve their identity in the context of the prevailing socio-cultural constraints.

Although I had not approached this subject from an interventional perspective, I believed that using the PD methodology of investigation would help me explore how the journey of some Saudi women enabled them to overcome resignation and fatalism - despite the fact that their life experiences remain enmeshed in a complex social system that could prevent such achievement.


I knew that the key to unlocking these ideas would be found at the heart of women’s life stories.  To explore these, I spent 15 days in Saudi Arabia and I chose the ‘life narrative’ interview process to talk to 19 women leaders of different ages (28 to 58) in Jeddah, Khobar and Riyadh.  The ‘life narrative’3 interview process invites participants to consider their lives as a book, enabling the emergence of key moments, people, influences etc, through their story-telling. 

I speak Arabic, the language of their heart, which gave me privileged entry to their confidence and access to their innermost stories.  I used the PD investigation method of open listening, remaining flexible and respectful of the sensitivity of the information that they were sharing with me.  At times I allowed myself to admit my own vulnerability and share my own stories, which created a safe space for them to express their own emotions.  As a result, I was able to collect extensive data about the women’s childhood, their families, their education, their lifestyle, their hopes and fears and also their successes as leaders in the patriarchal society of Saudi Arabia. 


I had embarked on my research with the assumption that each Saudi woman leader would be a ‘warrior’, fighting for her dream against the constraints of her society.   What I discovered was that each of the 19 women demonstrated agency and determination to become leaders through their resourcefulness, diplomacy and ability to manoeuvre around the cultural limitations.  

I also discovered that behind each woman stood a strong ‘pillar’, in the form of her father or a fatherly figure, which was another surprising finding.  I had assumed that Saudi fathers would be obstacles to their daughters’ fulfilment, whereas I found that they shielded them from the constraints of their society and encouraged their education, allowing them to travel and obtain international degrees, and work in gender-mixed environments.  

I found myself wondering: who actually is the Positive Deviant?  The daughter? Or the father?  I am tempted to speculate that the father demonstrates equal PD behaviour, fuelled by a strong desire for his daughter to become a female leader in Saudi Arabia and a willingness to support her self-realisation.  


The PD methodology provided a helpful framework to explore, design and carry out my research.  Furthermore, it gave me guidance on how to conduct myself in the interview process, for example refraining from using leading questions, jumping to conclusions, interrupting and giving advice, or allowing my personal biases to contaminate the integrity of the narratives.

Finally, the Saudi Vision 2030 places great importance on growing, educating, developing and enabling a new generation of women leaders. My research took place over 3 months in 2018, reflecting a moment in time at the genesis of this nationwide initiative.  These preliminary findings show that beyond the Saudi culture and its societal paradigms, the importance of the family culture is at the heart of the solution.  

I believe a PD intervention involving other participants, including women and their fathers, mothers, family members and their support systems, would provide an interesting opportunity to expand the solution space.

1 Consulting and Coaching for Change is a Mastère Spécialisé degree which is run jointly by the Said Business School (Oxford University) and the HEC in Paris
3 (McAdams, 2001)

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100–122.

Michele Dabaghian