Sep 18 2017| Leadership

Intelligent Disobedience: Disruptive Influence or Performance Driver

Should leaders always expect their people to obey their instructions?

by Phil Eyre Founder

A man drove into the river Elbe after blindly following his SatNav (The Local 11th February 2016).  He intended to board a river ferry, but failed to notice that it was the other side of the river and simply followed the SatNav instructions, driving straight into the river.

A local fire service spokesperson highlighted that it is pretty obvious where the road stops and the river starts, and there are plenty of warning signs along the way. The driver, focused only on the SatNav instructions ignored all signs and environmental awareness, plunging four metres to the bottom of the river. Thankfully, no one was injured in the accident, other than perhaps the driver’s dented pride.

Conditioned to obey authority

From an early age, we are conditioned to obey authority. We follow instructions, are taught to recognise the symbols of authority and obey our ‘superiors’. As I am sure most parents would agree, this is with good reason. As we grow up, we learn not to speak out of turn, as exceeding our position can be costly in social standing, relational capital and sometimes in financial terms, too. 

But when taken to an extreme, blindly following instructions can be extremely costly. ‘I was just doing my job’ became known as the Nuremberg Defence. Nazi war criminals - most notoriously Aldof Eichmann, attributed with a significant role in organising the Holocaust, said that they were only following orders when committing terrible war crimes.

In far less horrendous circumstances, recent business scandals - notably relating to excess bank charges at Wells Fargo and the ‘defeat devices’ at Volkswagen - showed a similar propensity for people to do what they were told, despite some reservations.

Certainly, in the case of Wells Fargo, a mix of an aggressive sales culture and the threat of job termination created the conditions for thousands of people to override not just best practice, but the law. 

Moral disobedience 

The merits of moral disobedience are therefore perhaps quite clear, at least conceptually. When given an illegal order, we have a moral imperative to disobey. Neurenberg Principle IV established that ‘the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was, in fact, possible to him.’ 

Law and regulation, professional codes of ethics compel all employees at any level in many sectors - financial, healthcare, education and more - to disobey if faced with an instruction that is clearly immoral or illegal. 

Intelligent disobedience

Intelligent disobedience extends this idea beyond just moral and legal considerations. As Ira Chaleff describes in his book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong, the idea of intelligent disobedience is drawn from guide dog training. Guide dogs are initially socialised and conditioned to obey orders. They are then taught intelligent disobedience. If they are given an order that would harm them or their owner, they must not obey, even if the command is repeated.

We can learn a lot from this idea. Leaders that recognise that they do not know it all, that they have blind spots, will welcome feedback to finesse and improve their ideas. Intelligent disobedience takes this a step further, creating the conditions for subordinates to disobey in some circumstances for an even greater outcome. 

At this point, you might be thinking of colleagues or ex-colleagues with more than a hint of rebelliousness that cause disruption, distress and damage. That is merely ‘disobedience’, far from intelligent.

These are the factors that distinguish intelligent disobedience and its associated performance drivers from simply disruptive and dangerous rebellion:

1)    Respect

Intelligent disobedience is not disrespectful of authority - quite the opposite. In fact, intelligent disobedience begins with healthy self-respect, adherence to personal values that inform decision making and behaviour. If these lines are crossed, a self-respecting person will intelligently take action to ensure that their core values are not compromised. Respect for colleagues, including those in authority, is a crucial factor for disobedience to be intelligent, differentiating from an arrogant “I know better” stance.

Leaders is increasingly working with our clients to explore and establish what respectful working looks like in practice. A trusting, respectful and ‘psychologically safe’ environment provides the conditions for optimum performance. In our work so far, the common characteristics for respectful working include: 

-    Listening well. Leaders and managers need to listen to their teams if they want to foster trust and respect. Creating time to listen, being attentive, demonstrating that the ideas and concerns raised have been understood are features of listening well.  For all teams that we have worked with, respectful leadership includes consulting with people potentially affected by a decision before implementing, rather than imposing change on others.

-    Speaking well.  Using respectful language, speaking to colleagues rather than about them, arguing against points rather than the person and giving credit where it is due. For one team, this was expressed as ‘only saying things about people that you’d be happy for them to hear’. 

-    Speaking up. Organisations that foster a ‘speaking up’ climate benefit from both better risk management and greater creativity. This is not the same as whistleblowing. A ‘speaking up’ culture seeks to avoid the necessity for whistleblowing. People need assurance that if they highlight improvements that this is to be rewarded and not punished. Unlike, for example, at Wells Fargo where The bank revealed that there had been 885 calls to its ethics hotline during the 2011-16 period, calls in which employees identified themselves by name and were subsequently subject to corrective actions (New York Times 4th May 2017).



2)    Awareness Radar. 

Awareness skill is critical for intelligent disobedience to be a positive factor in an organisation. Being able to see issues from alternative perspectives, based on new information, data and corroborating evidence creates the right conditions.  This requires curiosity skill - asking open questions, scanning for new information and inputs, asking other people for their perspective before leaping forward on gut instinct alone. 

Ira Chaleff describes this as ‘socialising around the topic’ to build support; conferring with a trusted colleague or colleagues if they have the time to process, before addressing the issue in a politically ‘savvy’ way. 

This describes awareness skill very well. As well as seeking sources of information, being curious and considering alternative perspectives, awareness requires a level of sophistication in the way that the new information is both sought and handled.

With this in mind, we are advising executive teams and boards on ensuring that they have a diversity of perspective. This might include age and gender diversity but is not limited to these areas. We recommend diversity of industry experience, life experience and cultural experience as providing greater awareness strength more than technical prowess at a board level. This is not to exclude technical skill on a board, but it is to broaden the voices and inputs that are heard.


3) Compelling Vision

At the heart of the idea of intelligent disobedience is the desire for a better outcome for the team, organisation or - in politics or military scenarios - potentially even the country. For disobedience to be intelligent, one of the key considerations is whether the decision being made is for the benefit of the organisation or of the individual making that decision.

A compelling vision is therefore important. The team must at least be aware of, if not participate in forming, a vision for the business; a desirable future state that everyone is working towards. This sets a critical frame when making a decision to follow or disobey an instruction in light of new information; asking ‘will this help us or hinder us from achieving our vision?’  

For that decision to be intelligent (including the moral imperative that underpins intelligence), the future vision should set out clearly how the business serves the world, or (more usually) a particular area of the world, rather than simply making money for stakeholders.

A compelling vision adds a further dimension when considering intelligent disobedience. Disobeying ‘conventional’ approaches is a significant factor in the success of many entrepreneurs. Without a vision for a better future, this is unlikely to happen in practice. 

Ira Chaleff reports that CEOs tell him - ‘What keeps me up at night is that my people aren’t telling me what I need to hear.’


Our challenge to ourselves and our clients is this: do you have the culture in place that ensures that you are hearing not just what you want to hear, but what you need to hear?




About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the NED Forum and the Institute of Directors.

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