Thank God for S#%t Disturbers

Apr 21, 1997

Oops.....I just used a four-letter word. Excuse me. But unfortunately, I don’t know a better term to describe people who constantly push the limits and question the status quo. In fact, I think having one or more of these “S-Ds” (what we’ll call s#%t-disturbers from this point on) is essential in a firm that wants to grow beyond what’s normal for their type in the locations they’re in. Here are more of my thoughts on S-Ds”: S-Ds aren’t always the most popular people in the firm. Most people hate change. This is especially true of people who have worked in the same organization for an extended period of time. Therefore, when the S-D starts questioning why things are being done the way they are, and starts pushing for what is, in some cases, radical change, the result is immediate resistance. You start to hear whispers and behind-closed-door complaints about the S-D— “So-and-So is insensitive,” or “So-and-So lacks people skills,” or “So-and-So is not a team player.” But the hard reality is, these complainers simply have a vested interest in keeping everything the same in their little world, and that’s what makes them comfortable. S-Ds won’t stay unless you listen to them. S-Ds are not easy people to keep employed at your company. These are some of the most unconventional, non-conforming people you can find. They tend to be critical, verbal, and entrepreneurial. They won’t stick around unless they respect you. They won’t respect you if you defend the status quo when they bring their issues to your attention. You have to listen and act on what the S-D is suggesting whenever possible if you care to keep them. S-Ds occasionally go out of control. It’s true. Despite their intelligence and powers of perception, and their ability to so clearly articulate what’s wrong and what should be, S-Ds can, in some instances, lose it. If one of these S-Ds works for you or is your protégé, it’s your job to counsel him or her about priorities. Because that’s what it usually comes down to. They may in fact be absolutely right, but the question is whether or not that’s the real priority the organization should be focusing on at that time. S-Ds have a wide-ranging view. Don’t expect to pigeon-hole your S-D into one little area of concern. It’s not going to happen. S-Ds, by nature, see opportunities for improvement all around. They are not going to restrict their vision and have self-imposed myopia, just because that’s what management wants. That’s not the way these people are wired. A better idea is to let them think about what they want, but have them report it all to you. Don’t confuse an S-D impostor with a real S-D. There are impostors, people who want to believe that they are real S-Ds, who want to fantasize about their power as an organization change agent, who are really not very smart and who just like to sling mud in an effort to build themselves up. My experience is that for every real S-D, there are two or three or four of these impostors running around. One indicator that someone is a fake S-D lies in how many jobs they have had over time, and especially, how many jobs that they got “laid off” from (in other words, fired from). But ultimately, you have to be the judge. Is the criticism valid or not? Is there any positive suggestion for what needs to happen, or is it just criticism? If you don’t like what you’re hearing from the so-called S-D, is it because the truth hurts, or because it’s just B.S. and pot-stirring for the sake of it? It’s your job to run interference for your S-D. You are the boss, therefore you need to defend the S-D when he or she comes under attack from those who don’t want change. And it will happen. What should you look for if you want to hire an S-D? There’s no sure-fire way to find S-Ds. Qualities I would look for include: independence; early leadership experiences; lack of conventionality in where the person lives or how they dress; and someone who is the youngest child in a family of multiple children. This is one place where psychological testing may actually help. One of the highest compliments I ever received came from the chairman of a previous employer of mine after I turned in my notice. He said that if anyone ever asked him about me he’d tell them I was a s#%t-disturber, but “they needed their s#%t disturbed.” I’m not sure I considered it a compliment at the time! Originally published April 21, 1997

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.