Disruption through vulnerability
We usually think of technology when talking about disruption, but human vulnerability holds a powerful key.
#Disruption is a buzz word on steroids at the moment: We are in “The age of Disruption”. Headlines the world over are filled with this term. Here’s just a couple of examples from the past week or so:
For me, until recently, the notion of disruption has been synonymous with disruptive technology; big glossy gamechangers that leave the world forever different. I think that this particular nuance was really borne from my time at Singularity University, and recently at their Global Summit in San Francisco.
However, throughout the past year as an Acumen Global Fellow and also recently attending the Tamarack Community Change Institute in Toronto, I’ve been exposed to the deep impact of a different mechanism of disruption. Not technological, but human. Through exposing human vulnerability.
To illustrate the power of human vulnerability to disrupt, I’d like to share some of my experience at the Tamarack Community Change Institute. It is a really interesting 5-day learning event, full of people committed to creating change through collective impact. The theme for the week is disruption and as part of this experience, we are put into a ‘learning group’ that we spend time with every day, discussing what had been evoked during the various speakers and workshops.
To be honest my first thought is, “Urghhh more groups… I have enough people in my life right now!”. I try to keep an open mind and I arrive to my group — Table 16 — on the first day. We are 6 white women over 50, 1 younger woman around my age, our team leader who is a black man from the USA and myself. We open with a short intro/get to know you situation. (As what I now know is my usual way) I share only very top line and then afterwards feel as though I’m just not on the inside of the conversation. “Maybe I’m too young/inexperienced to contribute something that is valuable to this crowd”, I think. All in all, I’m thinking “URGHHH more group norming and forming…”.
Tuesday comes and we have some flexibility regarding when exactly we would meet for the learning group. We decide on midday. At 11.55am I’m back at the group and some of the conversation has already started. It feels weird trying to get into the conversation. At this point I’m thinking — “Thank goodness only 3 more days of this. I’m so on the out”. Three more people arrive, including the team leader, just after me at midday. It comes to discussing the set questions for the day and the ones who had begun the conversation early say “We’ve already done it, so it’s your turn now. Tell us your answers”. It’s super awkward and non-helpful, but I go along with it. After our stilted and meaningless ‘share moments’, one person takes a group photo, slaps a “Table 16=#1 group” label on it and then posts it to the twittersphere. We all smile obligingly. Frauds.
Once the conversation has died a natural, uncomfortable “get me outta here ASAP” death, the lady sitting next to me (who had come at midday and was also on the out — around 70 years old, with a croaky voice, working in one of the USA’s largest NGOs) says, in an irritated but calm tone, emotion wavering in her voice, “You know, you said to meet at midday which we did, but you started without all of us and I’m really angry that you excluded half of the group and jeopardised all of our learning experiences. It’s no way to work and learn. Being the #1 team is so very far from the truth it’s not funny. Tomorrow, when we agree to a time, let’s stick to it.”.
And then she leaves.
The group silence is deafening.
It sounds like a small thing, but it really isn’t. Her sharing, in that moment, from a deep place of vulnerability, is completely #disruptive.
I sit there in awe at the courage and conviction that this lady just showed (I am also super disappointed in myself for taking on a bystander role). She sets a wonderful example of being real that then goes on to change the tone, quality and depth of the group interactions. Her vulnerability disrupts the group norms that had unconsciously formed and were, little by little, stealthily being endorsed by our non-actions.
The next day, the group leader actually facilitates a session about the ‘incident’. Our very honest and open exchange about what happened takes the conversation and group to a very different place. It feels a lot like an application of the adaptive leadership we had learned in NYC as part of Acumen Fellows training all over again — part deconstruction of the circumstances, part sharing of inner thoughts and feelings around the table.
In the moments that follow, two things happen:
1/ It becomes apparent that nearly everyone is uncomfortable about the events that had transpired even before the lady had spoken out but talked themselves out of speaking their truth for fear of being too exposed to a group of relative strangers.
2/ The processes that had been (mainly subconsciously formed) in this group are now disrupted. People open up and begin to share their vulnerabilities too. We move from it being an intellectual exercise, to one that connects mind and heart. We share really deeply personal parts of our lives with the rest of the group — talking about where we get inspiration from and who has influenced them over the course of our lives. The stories that emerge are so moving (I need the tissue box!). We leave the session with group trust, respect and belonging. It is a great feeling and one that continues to grow throughout the week.
I witness, first-hand, a disruption of a different kind.
And it is so powerful.