What does “Professionally Irreverent” mean, and how does it apply to innovation?

One of the traits that I am most proud of in my daughter Kallea is her willingness to ask questions about words she doesn’t understand. She will outright stop you and say, “What does that word mean?” if she doesn’t know. Instead of nodding her head up and down and not knowing, she has a willingness to ask. 

I want to think she learned this from me, but I might have learned it from her. Either way, I think it is an amazingly valuable practice for learning.

In education, you often hear about “buzzwords,” which I believe are words that are frequently said without real thought. I think this happens when we say a word repeatedly yet cannot clearly and concisely define what it means. For example, I believe innovation will always be crucial in education, yet people use the term and do not necessarily know what they are saying. In “The Innovator’s Mindset,” I defined the term simply as “doing new and better things.” That’s it. When in education, will doing “new and better” things ever be irrelevant? 

If the word matters to you, then it is essential that you define what it means and what it looks like.

I write about this because I recently did what my daughter Kallea often does to me, to Dr. Sarah Sirgo. In our pre-interview for our podcast, she mentioned the term “Professionally Irreverent,” and I stopped her immediately because I did not know the meaning of the word “irreverent” and needed clarification. I have heard the word, but I wanted a deeper understanding.

As Sarah shared the definition and its importance, I loved the idea, and it became a big part of our podcast conversation. I asked Sarah to write a short post about a few questions about the term “Professionally Irreverent” and why it matters so much, which she graciously answered in the post below. Probably a day or two before the podcast and hearing this term for the first time, I read this quote:



“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world;
the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

George Bernard Shaw



It reminded me of this anonymous quote:




As you read the post below, that quote makes so much more sense to me and why being “Professionally Irreverent” is vital to progress being continuously made in education. 

Check out the podcast below on YouTube, or you can listen to it here on Apple Podcasts. 






What does “Professionally Irreverent” mean, and how does it apply to innovation?
Dr. Sarah Sirgo


If you have ever been in a space with someone who asks a lot of questions, challenges the status quo, or says the things you wish you could in a way that doesn’t offend, you’ve likely been in the presence of a professionally irreverent leader.  I coined this term many years ago to describe the sweet spot between being direct and disagreeable to being clear and inquisitive. 

In this way, being professionally irreverent is the act of actively resisting the inclination to go along, succumb to groupthink, or suppress your ideas or inquisitiveness.  More art than science, this approach refers to how we show up and often includes four key characteristics:


  • Respectful Disruption: While challenging norms and conventions, it’s essential to do so with respect. Being professionally irreverent does not mean being disrespectful or undermining colleagues or established practices. Instead, it involves bringing a fresh perspective without causing unnecessary conflict. 
  • Diplomacy:  Tact and timing are essential.  This means that we allow ideas to marinate before reacting and we understand our role in the process.  This includes considering what you want to share, in what way, and with whom. Being clear about what it is you want to question or interrogate must be framed carefully before you point out what may not work well, or make suggestions. 
  • Innovation:  Unconventional thinking must be coupled with answering the question, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” or “Does this approach address the area of need?” This involves being flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances while you navigate unexpected situations with a desire to get at the interest in non-traditional ways. 
  • Intention:  This involves challenging traditional norms, questioning established practices, and bringing a fresh perspective to the table. However, it’s crucial to balance irreverence with professionalism, ensuring that the approach contributes positively to the work environment rather than undermining it. 

Ultimately, the goal of being professionally irreverent is to contribute positively to the work environment. It’s not about being disruptive for the sake of it but rather about bringing energy, creativity, and a sense of fun or playfulness that enhances the overall workplace atmosphere.



How can we embrace this idea as individuals to create better opportunities for the people we serve and ourselves?


Being professionally irreverent starts with how you respond to things that you don’t agree with or don’t think make sense. Do you go straight to your colleague’s text thread and fire off some unfortunate memes?  Do you stand in the hall and throw your hands up in disbelief?  Or do you see yourself as a victim who is not in a position to influence change?   Professionally irreverent leaders understand where the windows of influence are open and where they are closed and carefully navigate those spaces with good intent.   A few key practices that I encourage individuals to consider:

  • Get clear about what gives you pause.  Is it a core value conflict?  An issue of workload?  Is it an area of philosophical tension?  Understand what it is that you are wondering about so that you can be clear about how you should respond.  All emotions are valuable, but not all should be weighed equally, so be careful which ones drive your actions.  A rule of thumb I practice is to never make big decisions when you are feeling big emotions. 
  • Propose innovative solutions:  What are other ways of getting the interest?  Avoid the inclination to suggest things be discarded completely in favor of approaching them differently. Present your ideas in a constructive and well-thought-out manner, emphasizing the potential positive impact on the situation.
  • Look for diverse perspectives: It’s easy to surround ourselves with people who think like us and often agree with our perspectives.  However, living inside an echo chamber where all the ideas are the same limits our view.  Actively seek out and appreciate diverse opinions within your team or organization. Do you have any blind spots?


How can administrators create an environment where people embrace and lean into the idea of “professionally irreverent” to create better learning experiences and opportunities in education?


I fundamentally believe that the primary function of leadership is to create the conditions for others to thrive.  In this way, creating an environment that encourages a professionally irreverent mindset in education requires a thoughtful and intentional approach from administrators.  Here are several strategies to consider:

  • Promote purposeful innovation:  Encourage your staff to work within the expectations of the organization but find the field of choice. This means that even within the structured space of mandated curricular products and approaches, encourage educators to experiment with new teaching methods, technologies, and ways to enhance learning experiences. This includes recognition that celebrates staff who implement innovative teaching methods or approaches that yield results in non-traditional ways.
  • Solicit and act on feedback:  Leaders should engage in cycles of feedback that are acted upon and consistent.  This means, not relying on just the annual organizational climate survey, but regularly asking “What is something that we should continue that supports your work?” and “What is something to reconsider or review?” This should be followed by feedback on feedback or “you said, we will” to demonstrate what feedback will be acted upon, considered, or reviewed. 
  • Model professional irreverence: Administrators should embody a professionally irreverent mindset themselves, demonstrating a willingness to challenge the status quo and embrace innovative ideas. Show where you have changed your mind, changed course, or decided to pause based on what others have shared with you. Make that thinking visible by creating an open space to question and challenge ideas, inside of being clear how decisions are made and where influence or change possibilities exist. 


In education, organizations, and every space in between, we will always be confronted with ideas to interrogate, processes to autopsy, and approaches to consider. 

A spirit of professional irreverence will bring candor that generates trust and a commitment to getting it right!


Written by Dr. Sarah Sirgo; Please check out her website here!

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