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Coaching and mentoring monthly feature: On becoming a disruptive influence


Dr Richard Hale, Director of Action Learning Forums, International Management Centres Association and the CPD Business School writes exclusively for TrainingZONE on a whole range of coaching-related issues.

Dr Richard Hale
In this third column for TrainingZONE, Dr Hale considers the need to ask awkward questions, and for individuals sometimes to be prepared to upset the status quo.

It is funny how the word 'feedback' has negative connotations and when I think back to my early education there was a piece of recurring feedback I would receive from my teachers at school: "Hale is a disruptive influence".

This was traditional English education - the assumption was disruption was negative and such behaviour should be corrected in favour of conformity. Model learners were intellectual passive note-takers with tremendous memory recall and 'good attitude to learning'.

When I was appointed to my first job I was employed by a very well-respected Personnel Director (in the days of Personnel) who told me one thing that stuck in my memory - "we recruit people in this business who we expect to question and challenge the ways things are done". I wondered what he meant, as most people were older and more experienced than I was and things seemed to be so professional and organised. To challenge and question you had to be rather brave and whilst the top director expected me to challenge, clearly those people I was dealing with at the coal-face considered challenging as pretentious - a 'disruptive influence' so to speak.

Subsequently, for a decade I took on consulting assignments where I received different messages about how disruptive one can afford to be. Some clients became upset if you disrupted their thinking too much with questions and challenges; in fact there were occasions where I learnt this to my cost. It was as though I was employed by the sponsor to pedal a line of thinking that he or she wanted reinforced with some external validation.

Then, 'Eureka', breakthrough thinking as I decided to ask clients how disruptive or challenging they wanted me to be. This was a revelation because some of the more visionary sponsors would say they wanted me to challenge thinking and behaviours. They recognised the goal at the end of a learning event was 'learning' more at the level of insights where one has to look within, rather than happiness or the quick hit at the end of an event.

As a self-trained 'disruptive influence' I found I had a strength in asking the provocative questions, in helping people to look at themselves and I wasn't overly worried about having to be popular in this role. I actually enjoyed this role more than being positioned as a subject matter 'expert'. What is an 'expert' anyway? Someone who is one page ahead of you in the book? Professor Reg Revans, founding father of Action Learning, who worked with Nobel prize-winning scientists, was actually dismissive of the notion of experts and said we should judge people not by their knowledge but by the questions they ask.

Recently things fell into place, the wheel had turned full circle. Clive Hook at Clearworth asked me to join in a one of his m@sterclass programmes with a group of directors of a muti-national specifically to be a 'disruptive influence'. I asked what materials he wanted me to present and thought I had better prepare some slides to give some structure to my session. Then I realised he really did mean it - no materials needed - I was there to stir things up and to ask the provocative questions and to disrupt people's thinking. As I worked with this group the old instincts kicked in and I found myself quite enjoying being a disruptive influence.

Interestingly, although I was positioned with the Directors as a 'disruptive influence' from the start, the expectation was that I should take on the role of asking the difficult questions, playing devil's advocate and challenging assumptions, I was welcomed and accepted. I would contrast this with situations where one is positioned as the subject matter 'expert'. This provokes two types of response, 'intellectual passive note-taking' or suspicious 'prove-yourself' behaviour.

I love the story of the Sceptic Philosopher, Carneades (214-129 BC) who made a great stir on a visit to Rome by giving a series of public lectures. In the first he forcefully presented the views of Aristotle and Plato on justice. In the second lecture he refuted everything he had said in the first. An early disruptive influence no doubt!

So, some possibly disruptive questions:

1 - If you claim to support the learning of others, whether as a mentor, coach or trainer, to what extent are you or should you be a disruptive influence?

2 - How comfortable are you with others disrupting your thinking?

Dr Richard Hale, 2002

References/related links

Clearworth F@asterclass and M@asterclass

For information on accreditation of action learning in organizations, go to the CPD Business School

Accrediting your training - an action learning approach

Related Library resource: Influencing through listening, questioning and understanding


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