When “Intelligent Disobedience” is the Best Choice

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Guide dogs undergo intense obedience training to prepare them to lead visually impaired people around obstacles. But what happens when a blind woman doesn’t hear the approach of a quiet electric vehicle and directs her dog to step off the curb? At that moment, the dog must make a life and death decision: does he block the woman from going forward, even if it means disobeying a command?

Sometimes the right decision is to ignore a boss’s orders

“Intelligent Disobedience” is the term trainers use to describe the quality that enables a dog to resist a command that would put his human in danger. In his new book, leadership expert – and my friend — Ira Chaleff explores how a similar quality may be needed in the workplace, when a team member sees that a leader is about to make a dangerous mistake.

In Intelligent Disobedience – Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong, Ira explores how ignoring a command can become an act of heroism. A compelling example is the story of Rick Rescorla, VP of security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, who was working at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. When a public address announcement directed people to stay at their desks, Rescorla refused to obey. Instead, he marshaled employees to follow the escape drill he had devised. He led thousands to safety, then lost his own life when he went back to the building to rescue others.

Ira says that enjoying the benefits of an organization does require obedience to the norms. And there are three factors that make obedience appropriate:

  1. The system is reasonably fair and functioning.
  2. The authority figure is legitimate and reasonably competent.
  3. The order itself is reasonably constructive.

But what should you do if you see your boss about to step off a curb? Ira suggests this practical test for Intelligent Disobedience: “Based on the information we have and the context in which the order is given, if obeying is likely to produce more harm than good, disobeying is the right move, at least until we have further clarified the situation and the order.”

Obedience tends to be a habit and it’s challenging to create an organizational culture where professionals don’t just habitually say “yes.” But so many scandals or tragedies might be prevented if a leadership group empowers followers to push back against ill-advised orders. Ira draws on guide dog training for lessons on developing the human capacity for Intelligent Disobedience:

  • Refusal skills can be developed through carefully designed training and practice. Exercises should involve identifying risks and early questioning of inappropriate order.
  • Training can begin with simple simulations and move toward more complex exercises.
  • In addition to practicing resistance to a poor or dangerous command, participants can practice the equivalent of a counter-pull, to bring the leader back to a safer position.
  • Acts of Intelligent Disobedience should be praised.

Ira’s book creates an intriguing picture of a culture where, instead of just following orders, people hold themselves accountable to do the right thing.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.