Disruptive change is when something unexpected happens that renders the expected future invalid. In the midst of it people who recognize new realities, realign their thinking, and revise their expectations tend to respond productively. Those who deny or minimize the significance of a disruption do not. Disruptive change is inevitable, and leaders who fail to help employees anticipate, embrace, and adapt positively in the midst of disruptions do so at their own peril.
Consider reactions to the 2016 US Presidential election. This election will be analyzed for many years to come, not merely for its political significance. Prior to election day many pundits and pollsters emphatically predicted that Donald J. Trump had no clear path to victory. As a result, those who opposed him were assured of his defeat. By the morning after the election, however, virtually half of the US was suffering from a political hangover caused by one of the most unexpected political upsets in modern history. Like it or not, Trump’s victory was a disruptive change in the political direction of the nation. Don't let political ideology blind you to its lessons.
The purpose of this post is NOT to debate Trump’s worthiness for office. Rather, its goal is to underscore the inevitability of disruptive change and encourage leaders to help employees anticipate, accept, and adapt – whether or not they are in favor of it.
Preparedness is Key
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks I had the honor of leading learning and development for Disney security. During that time my team significantly transformed the company’s approach to security training and created anti-terrorism and crisis response training that became an international benchmark for private and public sector security organizations.
Although that training included instruction on what to do if something happened, it also taught employees how to think in the midst of a crisis. It covered countless potential scenarios and equipped them with essential critical thinking and decision making skills. Most importantly, that training challenged employees to overcome familiarity and consistency biases that cause untrained people to see what they expect to see and favor information that validates those expectations. When something unexpected happens, knowing how to think objectively is extremely important.
Not Everyone is Prepared
If only college students were taught to think for themselves prior to entering the workforce. Tragically, much of the American university system has replaced critical thinking based curricula with a more didactic approach through which students are taught WHAT to think rather than HOW to think. This phenomenon is problematic for leaders for at least three reasons.
First, if students are told what to think (and it appears they are) a majority of them will adopt identical political and ideological worldviews – which is indoctrination, not education. This is problematic for leaders because workers must be able to think for themselves. Moreover, a workforce of ideologically homogenous college graduates stands to undermine over a decade of leadership initiatives intended to foster diversity of thought in the workplace.
Second, students who have been indoctrinated seem inclined to reject disruptions that contradict their programmed ideologies. Worse, they have learned to either isolate themselves from differing worldviews in "safe zones" or openly protest against them. This conditioning poses a significant challenge for leaders because isolating, rejecting, and protesting diverse ideologies is the very antithesis of inclusion – a widely held leadership priority.
Third, ideological differences aside, some college students are seemingly unwilling or unable to accept disruptions that don’t align with their preconceived expectations. As a result, leaders may soon encounter a wave of new workers who lack the skills necessary to adapt to the ever-changing needs of their employers and stakeholders. Think about it. A demographic of employees currently tapped for its ability to innovate may ironically struggle to accept unanticipated change in the future. That would be tragic.
You Can Begin Preparing Today
As a consultant, when I work with clients on planned change initiatives I emphasize the importance of having leaders take responsibility for preparing employees for change. I strongly recommend that clients first train leaders to drive change (without running others over) before expecting them to do so. Change is not impossible, but it is also not easy and should never be underestimated. Missteps can undermine any change initiative. Change management consulting, training, and coaching can greatly help organizations avoid unintentional missteps.
It is also essential for leaders to partner with HR and learning and development to establish a learning culture that cultivates openness to change and prepares employees to respond well to disruptive changes throughout their tenure. Below are a few thoughts on how leaders can drive change through training.
Perhaps the best starting point is to resist the temptation to have training tell employees what to think, and instead let it help them learn how to think. It is also a good idea to include lots of scenario-based critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making in your training to help employees find constructive solutions to complex issues. Similarly, welcome contrarian opinions and encourage perspective taking, which enables employees to adopt and argue a variety of perspectives contrary to their own. Finally, include exercises that require consensus building and allow for multiple solutions.
Disruptive change is inevitable, and many people did not learn how to cope with it in college. The responsibility to prepare them for disruptive change will inevitably fall on leaders. Are you ready?