Leadership: Are You Disruptive? #peopleskills #innovation

Leadership: Will the phrase, disruptive innovation, destroy your culture?

One of the hottest business terms today is disruptive innovation. It purportedly was first coined by Clayton Christensen regarding a product or service that starts small and grows larger eventually displacing established competitors.


Now the term disruption, oddly enough, is becoming mainstream. There are business schools teaching leadership for disruptive innovation. The press love to cover it.  Fast Company magazine features it. I’ve seen a few CEO’s smile when they say it.


Innovation is positive, uplifting, accelerating, worthy of applause.

Leadership: Image is the word innovation.

Leadership: Do you want others to see innovation as positive? Image via Istock.com.

Image licensed from Istock.com

The phrase, disruptive innovation, can be threatening and negative.

Webster’s Dictionary defines disruption as …

to break apart, rupture, to throw into disorder, to interrupt the normal course or unity of

which fits with Clayton Christensen’s description.

As The People Skills Coach™, I ask leaders,

How will frequent use of that phrase affect your company?

Will it inspire your employees to innovate?

Will it draw customers to you?

What if we changed the phrase to catalytic innovation?

Both phrases represent change. Which phrase will inspire employees to innovate and make the change happen? Which will attract customers who want changes that work vs. changes that tear things apart?

A recent study from Young & Rubicam reports that the number one unconscious value and need is security. So once again data suggests that change is difficult for many people.

Some leaders react by pushing hard to break through the need for security. They choose phrases like disruptive innovation. They then see their change leadership falter as employees and customers defend the status quo from the threat of disruption.

Leaders who highlight the positive instead of the disruptive pain see their change leadership succeed.


Leadership: Are You Disruptive or Catalytic?

  • Do you use the word disruption to mean positive change? What effect is this having on your employees and customers? Do they see disruption as positive or as threatening and painful?
  • Will the popular phrase, disruptive innovation, infiltrate the definition of teamwork? Will it bring teams to collaborate well and create innovative solutions?

    The workforce is diverse in age, gender, and culture. Will that phrase inspire them all to vital positive interactions? Or will it pit one team against the other as they live the disruption?

  • How many of your customers seek disruption? Can you imagine your marketing and sales executives telling customers, we aim to create a disruption?

    Be careful. Even customers who seek change often want it with low risk. Catalytic change sounds hopeful with a positive ending; disruptive change can sound unfinished and downright scary. People react based on what they perceive — success or threat!

If you choose threatening phrases to lead change, you are assuming that others will perceive this in a positive way and respond well. You are assuming you will see positive results. Those are two very risky leadership assumptions.

The unconscious need for security among those that must make innovation happen may have more power than you think.

Leaders, your words touch employees and customers. What are they hearing? What are they thinking? What will they do? Don’t assume. Find out!

What phrases inspire you to innovate? ‘Disruptive innovation’ or something else?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

Related Post:
Employee Engagement and Innovation: Choose And Not Or
Harvard Business Review > Disruptive Change: When Trying Harder is Part of the Problem

©2013 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email info@katenasser.com. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results. Kate also invites you to connect with her on Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter. She welcomes your interaction!

6 Responses to “Leadership: Are You Disruptive? #peopleskills #innovation”

  1. Carl says:

    Excellent points Kate – I’m not a big fan of oxymorons as a way to stimulate growth – while the term ‘disruptive innovation’ may have its place in certain markets – it will likely have a very negative connotation to the average person. Any leader who simply adopts the current buzz word and attempts to layer it into their culture is being short-sighted.
    I much prefer ‘catalytic innovation’ as it creates a feeling of positive energy and growth.

    Best regards,

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Carl,
      Catch phrases can gain momentum. When they are positive, I can see the value. When they are negative and potentially toxic, I sound the alarm.

      Thanks for your echo on this one!

  2. Pragati says:

    Thanks for a nice informative article, Kate!

    I think change is often considered disruptive. And there can hardly be any innovation without change. So maybe disruption is implied when you seek innovation. Should it be explicitly termed as such, is a point to be debated.

    It definitely has more potential to generate buzz or go viral.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Pragati,
      There are positive ways to inspire change and the results are far better. Negativity, fear tactics, and scaring people by focusing on disruption — just to spread the message — can stop the change from happening. Viral isn’t the goal. Effective change is!

      You can’t power over people to create long lasting change. Even if they cower and submit, eventually their resistance stops the change.

  3. Evan says:

    Great article Kate. Using the word Disruptive is probably disruptive in itself. Anyone entering a leadership position in a new company needs to be very careful. The first 90 days (just like the book) is critical in interviewing new employees, learning the culture, and just learning in general. One has to be very good at knowing and practicing ’emotional intelligence’ in order to not upset the delicate balance the new culture may have. As you said, it can easily turn very quickly against you unless you approach it right. The key is to minimize the perception of large change and risk. Orienting your story correctly can do thing (time is the key).

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Nicely said Evan … “using the word disruptive is probably disruptive itself”. The leader’s words and actions are building the culture whether they are aware of it or not.

      Start out positively to lead a positive can-do culture!

      Many thanks for weighing in with your thoughts. I hope you will visit this people skills blog often and share your wisdom.

      Regards and best wishes,

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