To blindly obey or intelligently disobey?

In a previous blog I talked about the link between Ethics and Success and how it is important that companies make it easy for their teams to do the right thing.  The importance of creating an environment where employees can speak up and question decisions or behaviours that they feel uncomfortable with, can be the difference between success and failure.  The famous collapse of Enron didn’t happen over night.  It was a series of individuals ‘turning a blind eye’ to questionable behaviour along with the relentless pursuit of profit by any means necessary that led to it’s infamous demise.

Employers have a responsibility – there’s no doubt.  But as employees, so do we.

The ability to articulately voice your concerns when you feel that something isn’t quite right takes courage, skill and practice.  That’s where intelligent disobedience comes in.  It’s the thoughtful and intelligent way of saying no.

Rules are a useful guideline but shouldn’t overshadow intelligence

Patricia A. McLagan (2003) says, “If you want to shut down an organisation, the best way is for people to stop working. The second best way is for everyone to just follow the rules.”

Not every leader knows best.    Not every leader can (or will) do right by their team, customers or organisation.  Leaders are human beings and therefore not perfect or beyond reproach.  It is important that we find the right way to challenge decisions or instructions in a way that doesn’t undermine or belittle, but is firm, clear and respectful.  We need to learn how to intelligently say no.

 Intelligent disobedience book

[Book summary] Torture in Abu Ghraib prison. Corporate fraud. Falsified records at Veterans Administration hospitals. Teachers pressured to feed test answers to students. These scandals could have been prevented if, early on, people had said no to their higher-ups. In this timely new book, Ira Chaleff goes deeply into when and how to disobey inappropriate orders, reduce unacceptable risk, and find better ways to achieve legitimate goals.

Why do we find it so difficult to say no?

Social psychology experiments as far back as the 1960s have consistently demonstrated that individuals find it difficult to question orders from an authority figure, even if they feel uncomfortable and/or even if the orders are illegally, immorally or just down right unthinkable.

Children at school are taught to listen to the teacher and not to speak out of turn.  To question your parents or elders was seen as disobedient.  To question your boss can be seen as insubordination.

The balance of power in an employment setting means that for many, questioning a decision or not following through on a management request could result in them losing their job.  Therefore, it becomes easier to say nothing ‘I’ll do as I’m told’ or turn a blind eye ‘that’s not my problem‘ or ‘I’m not paid enough for this’.

Easier said than done

There is a difference between being asked to do something you don’t want to do (such is life) and being asked to do something or equally not do something that is wrong.   We are old enough and experienced enough to know the difference.

Of course we would like to think that we wouldn’t blindly follow rules or instructions that we felt were wrong. But I’m sure if we reflect over our careers so far, we can recall at least one situation where should have questioned something we were asked to do because we didn’t feel comfortable, but for whatever reason we stayed silent.

There is no judgement in that.  We are human.

So, what can we remember to allow us to confidently intelligently disobey?

  • Don’t knee jerk and react impulsively. Think about why you feel that you cannot follow through with a management directive – is it because it’s illegal, it will hurt someone, it means lying (therefore compromising your values)?  Having the clarity about why you feel uncomfortable is essential if you want to intelligently disobey.
  • Find a private space where you will not be interrupted so you can talk to the person who has made the request
  • Speak up, with your shoulders back and head up high –  own it.  Say how you feel and why.
  • Start the conversation correctly“Can I talk to you about x and y? I feel really uncomfortable with doing what you asked and would like the opportunity to discuss it with you a little bit more.”  This is much better than “I’m sorry but I can’t do what you asked me to do.  I don’t agree and I think it’s wrong.”
  • Give the other person the chance to clarify their request or give you more context.  Sometimes we may object to the request because we don’t have the full picture, meaning we are basing our judgement on our perception rather than the reality.
  • Offer alternatives – as the saying goes “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. Discuss some alternatives that may still get the same result but in a way that you don’t feel compromised.
  • Understand you won’t win every battle.  Don’t take it personally if your objections are overuled.  If you are truly concerned about what you have been asked to do then speak to someone you trust in your team/company and ask their opinion.

Staying true

If personal integrity is important to you – acting with honesty and truth – then you have a responsibility to yourself to speak up.  You can only control your own actions and better you say to yourself ‘I tried’ rather than ‘for an easy life, I didn’t bother’.

speak your mind

If you find that you are regularly in a position where you are questioning decisions, actions or requests at work, I hate to say it but you are probably in the wrong company and therefore disobedience, no matter how intelligent, will only get you so far.

Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible for any consequences arising from practicing intelligent disobedience at work…

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