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Preparing Employees for Disruptive Change

December 2016

Disruptive change occurs when something happens that renders the expected future invalid. People who recognize new realities, realign their thinking, and revise their expectations tend to respond productively to these disruptions. Those who deny or minimize the significance of a disruption do not. Disruptive change is inevitable, and organizations that fail to help employees anticipate, embrace, and adapt positively in the midst of it do so at their own peril. 

Consider reactions to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as an example. This election will be analyzed for many years to come, not merely for its political significance. Prior to election day, many pundits and pollsters emphatically predicted that Donald J. Trump had no clear path to victory. As a result, those who opposed him were assured of his defeat. By the morning after the election, however, virtually half of the United States was suffering from a political hangover caused by one of the most unexpected political upsets in modern history. Trump’s victory was a disruptive change in the political direction of the nation. 

The purpose of this article is not to debate Trump’s worthiness for office. Rather, its goal is to underscore the inevitability of disruptive change and encourage talent development to help employees anticipate, accept, and adapt to it. 

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I had the honor of leading learning and development for Disney security. During that time, my team significantly transformed the company’s approach to security training. We created the Disney Security Training Institute, a licensed provider of security, anti-terrorism, and crisis response training that became an international benchmark for private and public sector security organizations. 

Although that training included instruction on what to do if something happened, it also taught learners how to think in the midst of a crisis. It covered countless potential scenarios and equipped learners with essential critical thinking and decision-making skills through the use of tabletop simulations and live field exercises. Learners were challenged to overcome familiarity and consistency biases that cause untrained people to see what they expect to see and favor information that validates those expectations. Security personnel were trained to expect the unexpected and to adapt, improvise, and overcome unforeseen circumstances. They were taught how to think. 

If only college students were taught to think for themselves prior to entering the workforce. Tragically, much of the American university system has replaced critical thinking–based curricula with a more didactic approach through which students are taught what to think rather than how to think. Allan Bloom (no relation to Benjamin) referred to this as “The Closing of the American Mind.” This phenomenon is problematic for talent development for at least three reasons. 

First, if students are told what to think, a majority of them will adopt identical political and ideological worldviews—which is indoctrination, not education. This is problematic for talent development because knowledge workers must be able to think for themselves.

Second, students who have been indoctrinated rather than taught to evaluate ideas autonomously may reject disruptions that appear to contradict their own ideologies. Talent development faces the unenviable challenge of preparing this emerging workforce to work alongside people whose worldviews are different from their own without demanding safe zones or protesting.

Third, some college students are seemingly unwilling or unable to accept disruptions that don’t align with their preconceived expectations. As a result, talent development may soon encounter a wave of new workers who lack the skills necessary to adapt to the changing needs of the organization. 

When working with clients on planned change initiatives, it is imperative that talent development play an early and active role in preparing employees for immediate changes. It is also essential for talent development to establish a learning culture that cultivates openness to ongoing change and prepares employees to anticipate and embrace disruptive change. 

Perhaps the best starting point is to resist the temptation to tell learners what to think, and instead help them learn how to think. It is also a good idea to include lots of scenario-based critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making in your training to help learners find constructive solutions to complex issues. Similarly, welcome contrarian opinions and encourage perspective taking, which enables learners to adopt and argue a variety of perspectives contrary to their own. Finally, include exercises that require consensus building and allow for multiple solutions. 

Disruptive change is inevitable, and many learners did not learn how to cope with it in college. The responsibility to prepare learners for disruptive change will inevitably fall on talent development. Are you ready?

© 2016 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

Don Levonius

As a professional consultant, trainer, and public speaker, ASTD Links Field Editor Don Levonius draws on more than 15 years of leadership experience. He has directed talent development for 23 Disney hotels, 200 retail and dining locations, a large transportation system, a security division, an international college internship program, and a global professional association. Today, Levonius is principal consultant with Victory Performance Consulting, where he provides OD and talent development solutions that help clients do what they do best, only better. He holds a master’s degree in HR development and a second master’s degree in business and organizational security management.

Reprinted with permission, © 2015 Association for Talent Development

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