You can’t make change without defiance

I’m well into my second decade of consulting with clients, and I’ve seen the nation’s business culture change the way we talk about change. First creativity became innovation, executed by innovators. Then innovators became change agents. Then the Silicon Valley term for disrupting a market began to be applied to individuals—disruptors.

“We need change. We need to hire more disruptors,” a hospital CEO once exclaimed to me in a strategy session.

The very next day, in a larger session and right in front of the CEO, a senior nurse practitioner impressively challenged the Chief Financial Officer to adopt more modern ways of doing business. Instead of embracing healthy debate, the CEO quickly moved to shut down the discussion. The CEO, so confidently ready to encourage rebellion just hours earlier, turtled in the line of fire, intimidated by the confrontation between the CFO and the nurse.

He let his team down and the room knew it wasn’t safe

Despite my best efforts to facilitate, what started as an energetic strategy session filled with possibility spiraled into timid consensus seeking and blatant authority bias. This happened several years ago, and it really stuck with me. And yet, scenes like this occur every day, everywhere. Despite the unprecedented level of change occurring in every industry, culture, and technology continue to grapple with the pressure of convention.

While markets change, our brains largely don’t. The risk and fear most of us feel when we push back against the status quo is real and largely un-evolved. We’re a tribal species.

But some don’t feel that fear as much. Some thrive on it.‍

It would be easy to blame that CEO for not allowing his nurse practitioner to continue her challenge, but really the whole room could have intervened. They were all senior leaders. Having gotten to know these exceptional individuals over a long engagement, I realized that the hospital’s leadership team did not have any real change agents. Health systems are notoriously risk-averse due to the nature of their work, and clinical teams are collaborative and consensus-driven by necessity.

Across the healthcare industry, the business arms of hospitals are racing to correct this culture, but hospitals are not alone. Many industries are naturally change-resistant. It’s probable that simply hiring new graduates in droves won’t help—as one of the most common critiques of American academia is that it produces obedient workers rather than critical thinkers.

When I look back on my client’s rallying cry of “We need more disruptors,” he was subconsciously admitting that he didn’t really have any on his bench, including himself.

So, as we all talk about disruption, innovation, or whatever the next buzzword is for change, we have to realistically ask ourselves: Do we have one or two catalysts on our team who aren’t afraid, who thrive on defiance, and value it as a tool?

If you are looking for change, you need to hire that way.‍

Whether it is through the plethora of assessments available, or by the simple interview question— “Tell me about the last time you challenged your boss?”—you can’t make change without making an effort to find the people who have the courage to fight for it.

Of course, it can be painful to work with disruptors who lack tact and patience. A true change agent is aggressive and persistent by nature, but also understands the importance of self-awareness and values the checks and balances their more compliant teammates provide.

So, disruptors. You need a few of them. And if you have to wonder whether or not you have them now, you don’t. Their presence is always obvious. If another disruptor had been in the hospital boardroom that day, the conversation would have continued. Others who saw the disruptors take a risk would have felt more safe to challenge the status quo too. They would have followed through the door their colleagues kicked down.

The team would have grown closer. Real problems would have been tackled. And disruption might have morphed from a buzzword into something that made a difference.

<< Back to blog