Why and how you need to disrupt your words

by | Oct 23, 2017 | Blog | 2 comments

Want to thrive during disruptive times? Use disruptive language.

That was one of the strong messages from the 2017 NeuroLeadership Summit held in New York City Oct. 11-12.

As the NeuroLeadership Summit and Institute co-founder Dr. David Rock explained, disruptive actions alone won’t get people’s attention and encourage them to change. Your language needs to be disruptive too.

When you match disruptive language with the environment, you can benefit in three ways:

  1. You prime people to orient themselves to the object of your desire, your one big thing. For example, when you ask individuals to imagine a particular future, they’ll start focusing more on that future especially if you also practice “coherence.” This means having a common narrative – or a “golden thread” as I call it – weaving through your messages and programs, which in this example would support imagining a specific future.
  1. You encourage “conscious calibration,” which helps counter the executive brain’s limited capacity. When you chunk content into manageable pieces and work to keep individuals focused on the one big thing, it’s easier for them to pay attention and set priorities. Rather than be tempted to run after the shiny new objects of the day, they can stay on path and on point. For example, they can ask “Did that meeting help me imagine the future that we’re trying to create?”
  1. You start building a common vocabulary, which helps improve shared understanding and productivity. When colleagues know what you’re talking about and quickly grasp each other’s shorthand, you can save time and energy and move faster with smoother handoffs.

What are some good examples of disruptive language?

Words or phrases that are punchy, memorable and relevant. They cut through the noise and clutter. They aren’t disruptive for disruption’s sake; they have a purpose.

Consider the following disruptive terms:

  • Brain Candy, which is HP’s new name for its long-standing HP University for learning and development. Not too surprisingly, employees are checking out Brain Candy more than they were going to the online university.
  • Stand up to FALL, meaning be willing to embrace your fears, anxiety and loneliness as a leader. By being vulnerable and acknowledging these feelings, you’ll reduce their intensity and will be able to become a more effective, understanding leader. (As background, for several months now Mercedes Martin and I have been talking with leaders for a project with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership Lab. During our conversations about leading in an uncertain world and shifting their organizations’ cultures to respond, many leaders opened up about the personal challenges they’re experiencing – which we’ve captured in the acronym FALL.)
  •  Work to Learn Labs, which is how Mercedes and I are describing the way leaders can better learn how to face their personal, organizational and other strategic challenges, especially when speed is needed. Rather than go to training room and listen to lectures, leaders immerse themselves in real work dilemmas and explore using adaptable frameworks to address their situation, learning as they go.

It also helps if you follow the “three second rule.” In other words, name and describe things in a way that people can remember and repeat back in three seconds. This applies to your vision and mission, your strategy, your values and other key programs. (It’s incredibly difficult for people to recall more than three to four values without any prompting, especially considering today’s distractions and level of overwhelm.)

And you also can combine disruptive language with disruptive images. For example, the picture here is from the opening of the new exhibit SEA CHANGE presented in collaboration with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and the South Carolina Aquarium. In her new work Aurora Robson: The Tide is High, the NY-based sculpture molds discarded plastics into new colorful objects. By “intercepting the waste stream,” she brings attention to our ever-growing plastic waste and its detrimental effects on our planet.

As we discussed disruptive language in the “digestive” sessions at the NeuroLeadership Summit, I also experienced an insight.

Downsides exist to adopting familiar terms during our VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — times.  For example, many people like to use the term “the new normal” to describe change.

Yet, the “new normal” suggests that you can switch to a new course that will be steady and stable. However, it’s unrealistic to think that it’s smooth sailing ahead with an even keel.

The environment can change in a blink of an eye – just think of the recent wildfires in California, companies that get acquired while preparing for an IPO, or the sudden resignation of a popular, respected CEO.

Words matter. Choose them carefully. And be willing to disrupt old patterns to signal new directions. 

What disruptive words will you use?


  1. Laura

    Hi Liz,

    Brilliant article, as usual. I refer to my training classes for physicians as “learning labs” because it’s largely learning directed and each student chooses the scope of what they want to learn about the topic, which is an electronic health record.

    I also call jargon “corporate zombie speak” — is that disruptive?

    Laura Camacho

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks Laura! I love the terms “learning labs” and “corporate zombie speak”! So descriptive. And yes, “corporate zombie speak” is disruptive any time of year, and especially around Halloween. Now, if only these corporate zombies would take action to speak like real humans….

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