Disruption: How Smart Managers Unlock Its Creative Energy

Photo: Adobe Stock/© Jacob Lund

Photo: Adobe Stock/© Jacob Lund

As business and technology continue to accelerate, managers everywhere are facing disruption like never before. Every day it comes at them in the form of conflicts, chaos, and breakdowns.

And even though the details vary, disruption typically causes widespread feelings of anxiety, aggravation, confusion, and overwhelm.

But today, most managers are still totally ill-equipped to effectively deal with this. And that only makes things worse.

Managers Up a Creek, Without A (Disruption) Mindset

In 1968, Peter Drucker referred to the then-modern business era as the "age of discontinuity."

Yet, almost half a century later, management thinking seems to have learned little from Drucker's words. Business still remains fixated on compliance, order and predictability.

Yet, ironically, the results this quest for stability are less than impressive.

A key reason is that, when disruption hits, managers are typically quick to react and begin dispensing blame. They identify a culprit and dispense directives and discipline. But these efforts usually backfire by undermining morale and decreasing engagement.

A Disruption Mindset and Uncommon Assumptions

But while doing research for my Ph.D., I discovered managers who got very different results.

These managers--I call them smart managers--were consistently effective and innovative. Even in the face of relentless disruption.

They were able to

  • avoid the angst associated with disruption.
  • strengthen team engagement.
  • unlock deeper levels of their team's creative energy.

I learned was smart managers had a radically different mindset based upon three assumptions. While uncommon, the three assumptions are simple to grasp, easy to adopt and generally make a difference for anyone using them.

Uncommon Assumption #1:
We Live In a Disruptive World

It’s clear that disruption isn't going away. But most managers continue to act as if the world were supposed to operate like a giant clock. Steady, predictable, and working with great precision.

However smart managers see it differently. Those I studied appeared to accept disruption as a basic fact of life.

For example Sally (not her real name), a seasoned social service manager I interviewed shared that

There are always unknowns. There is always unexpected....Every day I can walk in and have a game plan, but it is never going to be that way.

Sally didn’t act victimized by all the upheaval she regularly encountered. In fact, she saw it as a tremendous asset.

Like her smart colleagues, Sally saw disruption as an opportunity for her team to

  • improve their skills.
  • strengthen their ability to collaborate.
  • maximize their capacity for resilience.

Yet smart managers understood that effective teams still needed certainty and stability.

So in this regard, smart managers are very much like other managers. But what set them apart was where they found that certainty and stability.

Uncommon Assumption #2:
Stability Is All About Relationships

Organizations have always worked to transform chaos into stability.

In the industrial era, one way companies did this was by using capital and authority to control human behavior.

Today, the world is a very different place. However, many organizations still try to do this same thing.

Most contemporary organizations remain committed to controlling human behavior through authority. But today this approach typically creates chaos, not stability.

But smart managers intuitively understand this. They recognize that business has changed and that stability no longer comes from flexing authority. It comes through relationship.

As Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McGee have said, the key is “establishing close and smooth relationships so that everyone can share information easily and coordinate effectively.”

Smart managers live this. They know that stability comes from building strong, trusting relationships.  This is why smart managers rely on relationships as their main source of stability when facing chaos or uncertainty.

Yet if the situation called for it, smart managers don’t shy away from flexing their authority. But only as a last resort.

This, in turn, points to the third uncommon assumption informing the smart managers' mindset.

Uncommon Assumption #3:
Authority Serves People, People Don’t Serve Authority

The industrial era is long gone. But management thinking from that time continues to dominate most business settings. And a cornerstone of this mindset is the belief that managers create stability by controlling human behavior.

But smart managers know that people don't exist to serve their authority. Quite the opposite. Smart managers believe that their authority exists to serve their people. 

This is a simple belief, but for the smart managers, the implications seem to be monumental. But the key to making this work was using four "Anchors", or relational problem-solving strategies that I'll be introducing in upcoming postings.

What Smart Managers Understand

So smart managers don’t fight disruption. They embrace it. The key to doing this is putting relationships first and using authority to meet their people’s needs.