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Here’s why good leaders sometimes want disobedience

Obedience isn't everything. Just ask Volkswagen.

4 min read



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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by C. Ira Chaleff.


As a leader, which would you rather have from your people: dumb obedience or smart disobedience?

Your answer is probably “neither.” You want smart obedience: people creatively solving problems to get done what you want done. And, if you’re a good leader, most of the time you will have that.

Why just most of the time?

Because if you had obedience all the time you would be in deep trouble.

How come?

Sometimes, what you want done is not what should be done. Even the best leaders at times misread markets, ride hobby horses or make a play that is too risky.

Case in point: Volkswagen before the diesel scandal, where the vaunted CEO decided they should build a $90,000 Volkswagen model called the Phaeton, when VW already makes Audi and Porsche. Would you buy a VW for $90,000? But the culture of VW was one of obedience, so a whole plant was tooled for this production. The vehicle was not a success.

Of course, the even dumber obedience was falsifying fuel emissions to pass the California standards test. That has already cost VW an estimated $30 billion and the CEO his job. Are you still sure you want unthinking obedience? In hindsight, I think VW shareholders would have preferred intelligent disobedience.

What makes disobedience intelligent? The simplest rule is that it prevents unnecessary harm. Harm to whom or what? To employees, customers, investors, the community, the company’s viability, its reputation and brand.

What else makes it intelligent? It offers alternative and better solutions than the misguided order that needed disobeying.

OK. Let’s say this argument for occasional critical disobedience makes sense to you as a leader. How do you get your people to practice it?

It’s harder than it sounds, as it feels very risky to employees.

There has been a fair amount of field experience that answers the question of “how.” You practice it as you practice any safety protocol. Why do you have fire drills or, these days, active-shooter drills? Because if the moment comes when the protocol is needed, people know what to do. You should occasionally do intelligent disobedience drills.

Seriously. This is a perfect teaming exercise for a staff retreat. Create scenarios of what could arise in your organization for which the appropriate response would be to disobey. Have people act them out. Then debrief them. This could be a lot of fun.

It can also be a new element in your risk management strategy. Had the accountants at WorldCom disobeyed the pressure to falsify earnings reports, that company might still exist.

But listen up, leaders: Once you invite intelligent disobedience, you had better value it when it is done. That requires paying attention and self-management. Why is a generally supportive employee suddenly saying “no” to this program or order? What do they see that you don’t see?

You may well have a blind spot. Making a sudden lane change without first checking your blind spot can be fatal. How do you find out what’s in it?

You ask questions. You display authentic concern and interest. You listen well to the answers. You refrain from attacking those answers. You vocalize your understanding of what the dissenter is trying to tell you and check if that is right. You ask more questions, but never as an interrogation. Be prepared to change the program or order if the new information shows that it is unlikely to have the desired results. Place mission over ego. Always.

If there was no time to have this dialogue with you, and your employee makes an on the spot decision to not implement the order as given, give them support. If, by not obeying, they saved the organization from egg on its face, it’s ironic that no one will ever know that.

Why? Because the bad thing didn’t happen! It’s hard to appreciate the absence of a negative event. Appreciate it anyway.

They say that execution trumps strategy. Sometimes not executing trumps both.


Ira Chaleff is the author of “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong,” named the best new leadership book of 2015 by the University of San Diego, School Of Leadership and Education Sciences. See additional articles and talks at his website.

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