HR & Management

SME bosses should encourage their staff to be disobedient to protect their businesses

6 min read

29 October 2015

It might sound crazy but, according to Ira Chaleff, “Intelligent Disobedience,” means that employees should sometimes ignore the orders that they’re given by company owners and managers and do what they believe is right.

He points to the current problems faced by Volkswagen, which, he argues, could have been avoided if employees are used Intelligent Disobedience correctly.

“VW is an exceptional case of knowingly deceiving the government and the public,” he said.

“What’s not exceptional is that managers and employees went along with something they must have known was wrong. If we asked them, those involved would likely say they were worried about losing their jobs if they said no to installing the cheating software.

“This can happen just as easily in a small business and it puts CEOs and their organisations at risk. A strategy is needed to create a culture of constructive candour and, in rare but crucial cases, of Intelligent Disobedience if obedience would be harmful.”

Chaleff is an international best-selling author, speaker and consultant, who has drawn on his personal experience, history and the social science experiments involving obedience and authority at Yale and Stanford universities.

With this, he can offer a surprising look at how to create a culture where, rather than ‘just following orders,’ people hold themselves accountable always to do the right thing. His latest book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong has just been published.

VW aside, how does this translate into small and medium-sized businesses? Isn’t it harder for their team to question and not simply follow orders? “Sure it’s hard,” he said. 

“Human relations are hard. Professionalism requires doing the right thing even in the face of strong characters.”

In his books he examines what keeps people from doing this and he looks at how to overcome the most common barriers to doing the right thing.

In The Courageous Follower he shows how to break the stereotype of followers as meek sheep and in his latest book, Intelligent Disobedience, he looks at how trusted guide dogs learn to differentiate between when to obey and when to resist if obeying would cause harm.

When done well, argued Chaleff, even dominating bosses come to recognise the value of these behaviours.

But how can the teams in a small or medium-sized business, where the boss is often the founder and a strong character who is passionate about the company, disobey without getting sacked?

“The question you ask is itself part of the answer,” said Chaleff. “Avoid leaving an individual out on a limb. If the team resists a poorly thought out order it’s extremely unusual that the boss will fire the whole team. That would be massively self-defeating.

“As a team, help the boss understand how his or her self interest is at stake. Offer solutions. When the boss comes around, execute the safer path well, then remember to hand back the leadership to the boss. You don’t want an ongoing tug of war between the team and its leader.”

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Smaller companies can actually enjoy particular benefits when it comes to Intelligent Disobedience, that larger ones don’t.

“We can turn to the old saw here about how long it takes for a battleship to turn after being given the command,” said Chaleff. “A small vessel responds more quickly. If a small company makes the decision to value candour and the occasional need for Intelligent Disobedience it can make the culture shift a reality much more quickly than a large enterprise.”

He rejected the suggestion that this philosophy is simply a recipe for chaos.

“Even the military understands it these days,” he explained. “They now operate under the doctrine of ‘Command Intention’. Command makes the overall objective clear then leaves it to the officers and troops on the ground to work out the best way of achieving the objective.

“It’s understood that the reality on the ground is far too complex and shifting for explicit orders that are robotically implemented. That’s a recipe for disaster. Flexibility, judgment, intelligent adaptation – these are what carry the day.”

He pointed out that most firms, whatever their size, offer some staff development and some form of Disobedient Intelligence should be built into that training.

“On a more ‘do it yourself’ basis, have the leadership team read the book and have a discussion about how to make the principles work in your organisation,” said Chaleff.

“This is by definition very non-dogmatic material. But it wakens people to the need before it arises. Then, like the guide dog, team members know how to respond when there is a sudden need to make an independent decision that keeps the team safe.”