Want to Bring About Change at Work? Become a 'Constructive Irritant'

Don Tennant

When you see something in your company that needs to be changed, you're likely to address the issue in one of two ways: You'll either complain about it and spell out what other people need to do to bring about the change, or you'll step up and, without pointing a finger at anyone, outline what you're prepared to do to help bring about the change. Let's talk about that latter approach.


In my post yesterday, "Can the Darkened Soul of Infosys Be Saved?," I wrote about a conversation I had last week with Dr. John Izzo, an organizational psychologist and author of the book, "Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything." That post focused on the heroism of whistleblowers in general, and of Jay Palmer, the whistleblower in the Infosys visa fraud case, in particular. But there was a lot more to the conversation that warrants discussion here. In his book, Izzo argues that nearly all problems can be solved if we each summon the courage to step up and become an agent of change, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. The idea is to become what he calls a "constructive irritant."


No one is saying it's easy, especially in uncertain times. I asked Izzo if he finds that with the economy and unemployment being in the state they are, that people are reluctant to become agents of change because they don't want to rock the boat. He said that is indeed the case:

I think there's a tendency, when things are the way they are right now, for people to hunker down-no news is good news, they don't want to stir the water. And I jokingly say that the last thing you want when it comes time to downsize is for the boss to think about how he hasn't noticed you lately, so it might not make any difference if you were gone. So in the book I talk about research on how "constructive irritants"-people who argue but don't point fingers of blame, and are solution people who challenge things-are consistently more highly-rated by their managers, and are more likely to get promoted, than "yes" people or complainers. During the tough times, people get a tough assignment and they wind up trying to rationalize to the people above them why they're not succeeding. I always tell people, your bosses already knew it was a tough assignment, and already knew about the constraints-they've probably spent most of their time trying to defend themselves to their bosses. What they really want is someone who says, "Look, I know there are a lot of constraints, but let me tell you what I'm going to do in spite of that."
Since IT is all about change, I also asked Izzo whether he finds that IT people are any more likely than anyone else in an organization to step up and become the agent of change. He said there's certainly an expectation that they will be:
I work with a lot of different companies and have had the chance to work with a lot of IT folks. The thing about IT is that because of its nature, it's often disruptive. But it can be disruptive in both a good and a bad way in people's minds. IT people are kind of expected to be disruptive agents of change. So I would say the good news for an IT person is the organization's leaders tend to look for you to be doing that. The bad news is you're also seen that way by the rest of the organization, so they need to understand that you know how much they're dealing with when you suggest those changes.
I also asked Izzo whether he's found that there's any difference between the genders in how willing people tend to be to step up and assume the responsibility for change in an organization. He said he's seen no significant difference in willingness. The difference, he says, often lies in the success of being heard:
Men, due to their competitive nature, often have a hard time arguing their position while still listening to others. Part of being perceived as a constructive irritant is the capacity to refrain from being in an aggressive or defensive position. I think men sometimes aren't as good at listening as women are because they get into that competitive mode. So I think both genders are equally willing to speak up, but I think the nature of women's communication style often makes them more likely to get a hearing from people in the organization. So the way women do it often makes them more likely to be perceived as constructive irritants, as opposed to just irritable. Now of course, you and I know that that's also balanced by whatever gender bias is out there that might put some women in some organizations in positions where they're not heard as much.
To wrap this up, let me share six tips that Izzo offers to help you find your "constructive irritant" within:


  • Find one thing. Think of something at work that you want to do something about. Instead of trying to hatch a master plan, identify one thing you can do starting immediately to move in the direction of the change you seek.
  • Get together. Find a few allies and start to meet. Focus on what you can do, the steps you can take, no matter how small they may be.
  • Challenge your colleagues at work. Make it your mission to speak up and make others better.
  • Praise effort. Go overboard to praise effort as well as results, especially if someone goes beyond his or her role of responsibilities.
  • Punch above your weight or formal position. Come up with ideas for new products and innovations even if it's not in your job description. Win customers for life even if it's not your department, and generally go bigger than whatever your role says you must do.
  • Don't let your lack of position get in the way of your influence. How could you lead right now even though you have no position? What steps can you take to make change?

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 18, 2012 7:04 PM Derek Slater Derek Slater  says:

"Constructive irritant"?  Great, I'm halfway there!

Jan 26, 2012 11:42 AM mehmet mehmet  says:

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