When I was 31, I became a director for an information technology group, and I was the only woman sitting at the table. At one of our first team meetings, I inadvertently challenged my direct supervisors’ approach and the logic he was using for a particular opportunity. My comment was blunt, but my intentions were good – I wanted to do the right thing. After the meeting, he pulled me aside and instructed me that, under no circumstances, should I say anything in front of the group that could be seen as a criticism, or a lack of support for him. My brain exploded! I left the conversation feeling deflated and even more determined to do the right thing for the organization and for our clients. I took immediate action and built allies among my peers, outside of our formal meetings. I planted seeds of ideas with my direct supervisor – allowing time for him process the ideas, and then promote them to the group, as if they were his. During my five years in the role, I helped him grow into the CIO of the organization – the whole-time taking criticism and blame for anything that did not bring him glory.
I did not understand at the time I was being disruptive! We admire disruptive leaders like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Oprah Winfrey. But for some people and organizations, having new ideas and challenging the status quo equates to rocking the boat, even more when it’s a female disruptor. Disruptive leaders are necessary, in fact, they are important to drive us forward. I want to explore what it means to be disruptive. Why it is seen as a positive attribute for men and negative for women, and as women, how we can take ownership of being disruptive.
Let’s start by defining the meaning of disruptive. The Merriam-Webster definition of disruption is “a break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity process, etc.”1 So, being disruptive is causing or tending to interrupt the normal course of things.2 It is simply a change of state; neither positive nor negative. In the book, The Disruption Mindset, Charlene Li defines disruptive as “challenging the status quo and trying to change a situation for the better.”3 Everyone should want to make a situation better, so I prefer to use this definition.
Why is being disruptive a positive attribute for men and a negative attribute for women? Well, simply stated, we did it to ourselves. We learned to position ourselves as collaborative and congenial and we do not give ourselves permission to be disruptive. Li’s research categorizes three characteristics: openness mindset, leadership behavior and disruption quotient. Men and women score comparably in the first two3… In fact, men and women score virtually the same. However, women score themselves significantly lower rating for the disruption quotient category. I think there is a correlation to how women tolerate risk.
There is an anecdotal story describing two equally qualified candidates reviewing a job description. The job has new requirements for each person. It is a growth opportunity. The male candidate will apply for the job if he is 60% confident in his ability to fulfill the role. The equally qualified woman needs to feel 90% confident. That is a significant difference, in how we approach uncertainty, or risk.
So as women, how do we take ownership of disruption? I think it starts with our critical thinking skills. We need to be more comfortable in expressing our curiosity. Asking why things are the way they are. Thinking critically naturally challenges the status quo. I see this as leading with agility and constantly being ready to try something new, to make the situation better. Capability to think critically is imperative for our personal growth, and as a leader for the growth of our business. It is also important to understand our personal tolerance for risk. When are we willing to go out on a limb and try something new, even if it is less clearly defined than our existing approach? When is the potential reward worth the risk of being disruptive? That decision exists on a continuum and not everyone is designed to spearhead the charge – not everyone is Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Oprah Winfrey.
Consider being disruptive across a spectrum of behavior; not everyone will lead the charge and not everyone will actively resist the change…most of us land somewhere in the middle. As we start to understand our personal willingness to adopt change and take risk, there is an opportunity to support others who may be more naturally disruptive. I think that we have some bad habits and bought into an outmoded paradigm. We can learn and actively try to change a situation for the better!
1 Merriam-Webster (Disruption)
2 Merriam-Webster (Disruptive)
3 Li, Charlene. The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Organizations Transform While Others Fail. IDEAPRESS, 2019