Disruption or Disrupter?

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By Renee Jensen

Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this:

You’re in a meeting where everything is going along smoothly. You are feeling optimistic—you may get done early so you can get back to your office and have a few minutes back in your day! All of the sudden, someone in the room derails the conversation and direction of the meeting causing a flurry of discussion, debate and disagreement. Now you are annoyed because not only are you not going to get those extra 15 minutes back in your day, but this meeting will likely run long or worse yet, another meeting will need to be scheduled so the team can conclude the original business the meeting had been intended to accomplish.  

The only thing worse than being a team member at the table when this happens is being the meeting organizer or leader and realizing that you failed to run an effective meeting and you allowed the meeting to get out of control, off track, and all of the sudden ineffective in accomplishing the goal.

So, who’s to blame?  Is it the leader that allowed this nonsense to happen?  The person who clearly and intentionally disrupted the meeting?  Or will you take personal responsibility for not helping to refocus the group and get the meeting back on track?  

What if all of these answers are wrong?  

I want to challenge you to open your mind and consider a completely different way of looking at this situation.  If everyone in that meeting came together to solve a problem and easily agreed to a solution, the meeting would have been over quickly.  But did all of the ideas in the room get vetted? Did group think happen?  Did you settle for the easiest and safest solution?  Did you just keep doing what you always do the way you always do it?  Was “that person” actually disrupting the meeting or where they simply interjecting as a disrupter?

Disruption vs. disrupter

So, what’s the difference?  To me, disruption is an intentional unsettling of the normal peace just to cause pain and suffering for the sake of entertainment.  But being a disrupter is very different.  

A disrupter will often have thoughts that are not mainstream with the group.  They will likely be the ones that speak up and ask questions at the risk of being ridiculed by their peers.  They will be the ones that are willing to introduce new ideas and concepts not yet explored at a time when the group is easily aligned on one solution.  A disrupter-type will always assume that no matter how well something is running or how good something is, there will always be a better way to do it, even if there isn’t.  A disrupter will constantly need to explore new ideas, alternative concepts, and innovative solutions.  It doesn’t mean the disrupter will always have a better way, but before the final decision is made they will urge the group to at least consider the idea that there may be a different way of doing something.

Contributing as a disrupter

I am a textbook disrupter, but when I was working with a team of likeminded innovative, creative fellow disrupters, I never would have applied that term to myself because everyone was just like me. Well, almost.  It wasn’t until I was the odd-person-out that I discovered that I was different.  

I was at the table for the very meeting which I described earlier.  For much of the meeting I just listened, withholding my comments because I felt I must have missed something or I was off track.  It wasn’t until I realized the meeting was going to speed through, right past the critical thinking and tough questions, that I raised my hand and did the unthinkable.  I challenged the team with a completely different direction in thought which did not easily align with the current thinking.  

The room was quiet. Those that were putting away their pens and notebooks paused. I felt like everyone was staring at me like I was crazy.  There was even one person in the room that literally rolled their eyes and chuckled hoping to break the ice and hoping I would say I was kidding.  But I wasn’t. I honestly felt like the team hadn’t even considered an alternate approach to a possible solution.  At that moment, I was sure everyone was annoyed with me because they all had so much work to do, and, being the newest member of the team, they felt I had no right to derail the meeting or justify another 15 minutes of discussion. 

The happy ending to this experience was my boss looked at me and said, “Hmmm.”  It might not seem like much, but it was the pause and consideration that I needed to know I wasn’t crazy.  In that moment my boss had kept an open mind; he knew I was a different kind of thinker with different experiences and background than the rest of the team.  He respected the diversity and spent the remaining 15 minutes of the meeting exploring the “what if” of the question I proposed.  

With the cold response around the table the exchange could have ended so differently with me feeling as if I should have never spoken up, but because my boss took a moment to pause and consider what I was saying, I felt respected and heard as an individual.  And although my idea was too bold for the current endeavor, I felt good knowing the team had been challenged that day. Ultimately, they did make modifications to the original plan because others felt empowered to share what they had been thinking and were not afraid to speak up.  After all, with my crazy idea in the room, all the other ideas seemed very reasonable now!  My boss created a safe environment for diversity that day.

Embracing the disrupters on your team

Having a disrupter on your team is an essential part of creating diversity.  We talk about the importance of diversity all the time, but diversity goes far beyond cultural diversity.  Disrupters bring diversity of thought and challenging the group to think beyond what might be the comfortable norm.  As a leader it is extremely important that you can identify this gift and harness it appropriately on your team.  It is important that your team recognizes that the disrupter is contributing different ideas for the sake of improvement or challenge, not with the intention of causing disruption.  

As a leader it is equally important that you teach others to embrace this diversity and build acceptance, respect, and appreciation for this very important role on your team.  If you are able to harness and direct the creativity, innovation, and diversion from group think, imagine the possibilities!  I am not going to tell you this will be easy; sometimes, just like cultural diversity, diversity of perspectives can be uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar to you and others.  It will take time to get to know and understand this person and how to best utilize their skills on your team, but the long-term benefits will pay off again and again.

You will be able to dig deeper into problem solving, you will challenge your team and be able to utilize the top echelon of their skill set, and ultimately you will build a stronger, more cohesive team because they have learned to embrace diversity of intellectual contributions.

Next time your meeting gets derailed, consider:

  • Is disruption of the meeting intended to be nonproductive, or does the disruption have the potential to be a disrupter? 
  • Could this potentially change the direction of the group?  
  • Is it possible that an idea not yet introduced could be valuable and worth exploring?  
  • Will your team be stronger and more aligned because they were able to positively embrace diversity of thought and not move on before at least considering an opinion or idea different than their own?

When you experience a disruption in a meeting, I challenge you to think twice and instead of moving on quickly, being annoyed, or dismissing the person.  Pause and think: Is this really a disruption, or could this be a disrupter that could change our direction for the better? 

Embrace the brave person that is offering this gift of diversity.  Create an environment where they feel included and valued for the uniqueness they bring to the team.

About Renee Jensen

Renee Jensen is a healthcare executive leader with over 19 years of experience in public hospital district operations and integrated healthcare systems. She writes about leadership and building high-performing teams at jensen2solutions.com.

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