How to use disruption as a catalyst to thrive

July 15, 2019 10:09 am

Part 1: Challenge + psychological safety + healthy relationships = self-awareness

Any challenge or change creates a certain amount of disruption.  But that does not mean the disruption itself cannot be helpful.  Our two most recent studies have explored the ways people respond to unexpected challenges and challenges they chose. This research also revealed the conditions that are necessary for disruption to become a catalyst to thrive.  In the next several posts we will highlight some of the findings from these studies and describe how we use what we discover to design our science-based development programs.









One of the most common types of growth people experienced as a consequence of their challenges was increased self-awareness.  This included personal insights associated with testing long-held ‘unhelpful’ assumptions, beliefs and behavioural patterns.  For example, in the first study, one woman became aware of her personal bias towards people who had been retrenched only after she missed out securing the job she had held prior to a merger and the subsequent ‘spill and fill’ exercise carried out by her company. Another man realised that he often made snap decisions that were overly biased towards short term outcomes when he gave up his gym membership and subsequently quit exercising ‘to save money’ after losing his job.  A poignant realisation came from a person who had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

I know I have limited time (I faced my mortality) I really know now time is short….It makes your more mindful – it guides my decisions.  Is going to the bank more important than playing with my grandchildren?

These are the type of insights that significantly change how people ‘see themselves’ and the judgements they make about others.  Uncovering blind spots is an important way to increase self-awareness which directly impacts the actions taken in the future.

Participants in the Outreacher study also demonstrated increased insight and self-awareness. Some became aware of previously unconscious biases towards people experiencing homelessness as exemplified by this quote:

Growing up I always thought it was somehow their fault – I see that has affected my behaviour towards rough sleepers.

For others, the challenge of approaching and engaging with a person who appears to be sleeping rough caused them to ‘test long-held assumptions and beliefs’.

It reminded me that I don’t like to talk to people and especially strangers
Going up to strangers is hard – but you have to put on your big boy pants on… practice makes perfect – anything gets easier.

This quote provides a good example of how the person came to think differently about interacting with people sleeping rough. He realised his hesitation to engage was not just because he was speaking to a person experiencing homelessness but because engaging with any stranger is a challenge – which is true for many people.

In a recent research briefing for our clients, we engaged the audience in a mini experiment, using a new technique call Emojiscore app, developed by Tagio P/L, a Sydney innovation startup, which highlighted some of the conditions that are necessary for people to overcome their normal discomfort to engage with people they don’t know.

At the beginning of the presentation, the audience members were asked to rate how they felt about interacting with strangers. Sixty-eight percent indicated they felt happy as indicated by their selection of the corresponding emoji.




However, later in the presentation, after actually interacting with someone they did not know, 99% rated the experience as happy.

Psychological safety, including a combination of structure and predictability, encouraged people in our mini-experiment to engage even though they were a little uncomfortable. Once they ‘experienced’ an actual engagement they became more attentive to the benefits.

This finding is consistent with the experience of leaders who participate in our TalentFAST™ program. This high-intensity development program provides leaders with an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in a simulation that mimic’s real-world requirements such as tight timelines, heavy cognitive load and complexity.  Participants experience pressure and must exert high effort throughout the program. Nevertheless, these leaders instantly see the benefits of testing their assumptions about leadership thereby gaining valuable insights about their blind spots and biases. The structure of the program ensures they able to immediately use these insights to improve their leadership performance. Similar to both of our research studies and even our mini-experiment, sense of safety is an essential component of the program. In this challenging situation, learning and improved performance are possible because of the safety inherent in a simulation versus ‘real life’.

Relationships also played an important role for participants in both research studies and TalentFAST™. Participants in the first study uniformly indicated that relationships were a source of strength as they recovered from the significant disruptions to their lives. As they moved from surviving to thriving, these participants also noted the importance of at least one person in their life that ‘pushed’ them in a positive way.  Similarly, the participants in the Outreacher study highlighted the value of their relationships with the social workers who gently, yet firmly, pushed them out of their comfort zone, giving them the courage and inspiration to confront their previously untested assumptions about themselves and people experiencing homelessness.  Executive assessor/coaches provide the same for participants in TalentFAST™.

Healthy relationships provide a sense of predictability and trust which contribute to the psychological safety that is essential for testing assumptions and beliefs. This in turn leads to uncovering biases, increasing self-awareness and ultimately contributing to learning and growth.

Want more practical BrainWise tools?

Dr Connie Henson, the author of BrainWise Leadership, designs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through Learning Quest.

Connect with us directly to learn more about our science-based services which include:

  • One-on-one leadership programs TalentFAST™,
  • Our team assessment and coaching program TeamFAST™ and
  • A variety of group-based culture-change programs, as well as online delivery.

For information, email



Photo credit: Jacqueline Martinez on Unsplash

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