Intelligent Disobedience

The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of “disobedience” is...

The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of “disobedience” is “refusing to do what someone in authority tells you to do” and is generally considered as a negative attitude. So, when I recently came across an online LinkedIn Learning course entitled “Leading with Intelligent Disobedience”, I was extremely curious to discover how and why anyone could be disobedient in an intelligent way. I was soon even more fascinated when I heard how course leader Bob McGannon had discovered the concept from a seeing eye dog! Like McGannon, I could never have imagined that a dog and an elevator would teach me a great lesson in leadership.

McGannon tells the story of a blind man who was waiting for a lift with his seeing eye dog. When the doors opened, the floor of the lift was 45 centimeters below the floor. Immediately, the dog (called Chap) stood at a 90-degree angle in front of his master, blocking him from walking forward. As people rushed to help, the man told them, “Chap is the most obedient dog I've ever had. But when he disobeys me, I obey him.”

It occurred to McGannon that, while business leaders need to ensure that their team complies with existing rules and processes, there will be times when diverging from the status quo may be what's best for the company. He argues that the ability to do this – to confidently and respectfully disobey, just as Chap the dog did to save his master from falling – is a core skill for today's leaders and their respective teams.

In this month’s newsletter I want to share with you four “intelligent disobedience” principles that can turbo- charge your leadership and simultaneously help your team to help you navigate unchartered territory (think COVID-19, think second wave, think global recession, etc.) and at the same time employ them to your advantage throughout your organization.

Principle 1: Give employees generous boundaries

If you lead other people, the first thing you need to understand is that your success depends on their success. The more you empower your team, the more they will grow and thrive. By giving your team members generous boundaries, you give them freedom to act and make their own decisions. Ritz Carlton hotels allow their people (from porters to Managers) and authorize up to $2,000 per case, per employee to resolve a guest’s complaint or problem, with no questions about how the money was spent (wisely or not). It has been estimated that most people will spend about US$100,000 on travel and accommodation in their lifetime, so for Ritz Carlton hotels, US$2,000 is a tiny amount to spend on keeping a guest loyal to the brand. 

Principle 2: Encourage employees to doubt your decisions

According to a blog post by Paul Crosby, “Today, startups and Fortune 500 companies alike are turning to doubters who question every decision within the company.” Like hackers employed by technology firms to discover vulnerabilities in their software, these critical thinkers help poke holes in company plans in order to strengthen them and provide alternative solutions that are better in the long run. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the same article notes how the Brandon Hall Group surveyed more than 2,100 managers on what they thought would be the most important skills required of leaders in the next five years. Some 35% said critical thinking was the most important, followed by collaboration (32%) and creativity (28%).

Principle 3: Encourage your team to take risks

Intelligent disobedience is not without a degree of risk but Bob McGannon encourages us to think about risk differently. There is the short-term risk of facing your manager when you want to break the rules. But if that same manager comes to your office and says, "Look at this horrible outcome. Did you know this was going to happen? What did you do about it?" and your answer is, "I just followed the rules," that's a greater risk. One of the world’s most successful investors, Warren Buffett, has admitted that he regrets not speaking up when he feared that management proposals were counter to the interests of stakeholders. Recognizing the truth and having the courage to speak it lies at the heart of intelligent disobedience.

Principle 4: Treat your team like family

As leadership authority Simon Sinek says: “Treat your employees like family and your employees will treat your customers like guests.” There is a proven correlation between job satisfaction and job engagement and companies and organizations that treat their employees like valued family members are able to create a culture of empathy and mutual trust. A sense of family is developed when employees feel like they belong, they are valued and cared for. A caring work environment allows people to fully engage their heads and their hearts. If you tend to separate work and home life – and treat your employees as if they have no life outside the office – it’s time to start breaking your own rules and employing some intelligent disobedience.

According to Bob McGannon, intelligent disobedience is about valuing outcomes over compliance, when that is an appropriate option of course.  On the other hand, breaking the rules randomly does not work either. This is where intelligent disobedience comes in; knowing when and how to break, bend or invent new rules to get better outcomes. Valuing authenticity - in yourself, in others - and appreciating the skills everyone brings to the table, including your own, should be at the heart of intelligent disobedience. 


Is intelligent disobedience part of your company's culture? If yes, how?