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Building a Culture of Positive Disruption


Leaders can help create a culture that encourages employees to question the status quo to benefit the company. By Nicola Heath


Albert Einstein made a strong case for disruption decades before it became a buzzword.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” said the famous scientist.

In other words, if you want to upset the applecart, you need a culture that values creativity and questioning the status quo.

Disruption is a key component of success in today’s business landscape. “In an environment where things are changing very rapidly and where new opportunities are coming up all the time… it’s the quick or the dead,” says Anya Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School.

The link between culture and performance has also been firmly established. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “[a] positive corporate culture—one that engages and motivates employees—helps a company’s bottom line.”


“Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader. You have to listen to the people who are
on the front line.” – Sir Richard Branson



What does a culture of disruption look like?

“Workplace culture can inspire disruption,” writes Leanne Hoagland-Smith in the Chicago Tribune.

A culture of disruption is one “in which people feel psychologically safe to speak it out, to say things that perhaps are not popular or that perhaps go against the norm,” says Johnson.

Without it, “the people at the top of the organisation are the ones that drive the agenda,” she says. “Often they’re not the people who are… in contact with the market in the most direct sort of way.”

Subtle cues that an organisation doesn’t value questioning of the status quo can shut down dialogue and stifle innovation, says Johnson. Often these organisations become “monoliths”, driven in one direction by a single overarching view until they are usurped by a more agile competitor.

Peter Wilson, Chairman of AHRI, says that to create a culture of disruption, CEOs must get out of the executive suite and spend time at the coal face, talking to the employees who serve the customers.

It’s an approach favoured by Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson, one of the leading disruptors of his generation. “We encourage all of our companies to seek feedback from their staff and implement great ideas where possible,” Branson wrote in a 2015 blog post giving examples of ideas proposed by Virgin Trains employees that had been adopted by the company.

Wilson also cites David Thodey, who was famous for his use of Yammer during his tenure as Telstra CEO. A 2015 HBR article reported that Thodey used the tool to cut through layers of management to directly engage with the telco’s thousands of employees. It gave him “an immediate and intimate look into what wasn’t working at Telstra” and “demonstrated that employee participation made a difference,” notes the author.

Wilson agrees. “[Thodey] said he learnt a lot more about what was going on than the traditional performance reports that headed their way up to the CEOs office.”

What leadership qualities help create a culture that invites disruption?

Johnson says as a manager or a leader it’s important “to have intellectual humility, to be willing and open to having your ideas questioned, to being non-defensive when others perhaps are critical of a particular direction [in which] you’re moving… your team.”


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