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Why We Need Intelligent Disobedience in Corporate America

By CSRWire Blogs

Submitted by Kelly Eisenhardt

Empowering employees to speak up when they see something that is wrong or when they are asked to do something that might cause harm is critical to the survival of all organizations. Each employee needs to internalize their own personal accountability for the actions they take under executive leadership.

Ira Chaleff is the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community, chairman emeritus of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University - where his course Courageous Followership is part of the core curriculum for staff. He is also an author, speaker, workshop presenter, and innovative thinker on the beneficial use of power between those who are leading those who are following in any given situation. His latest book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong breaks new ground exploring why we obey and how we might equip ourselves with the skills to resist inappropriate orders and find better and ethical ways to achieve goals.


What is intelligent disobedience and what does it look like in practice?

Intelligent disobedience is a term that is new to many people. Believe it or not, it comes from the world of guide dog training. It’s about making the right judgement call if potential harm might occur, even if it defies ones’ training.

When I first learned about this concept I asked myself, “If we can do this with dogs, why can’t we do this with people?” I went to the oldest guide dog training school in the country to see what lessons would transfer.

By asking these questions, I learned that there is a distinction between intelligence and civil disobedience. By overcoming obedience training, courageous people who see injustice of societal danger will then draw attention to the issues, and accept any consequences that may come from doing the right thing.

Most of us will not be called during our lifetime to take a stand that is perceived as civil disobedience. We assume that our systems are just and that we must work within them. Most people internalize that it is our responsibility to keep minimizing injustices and not follow orders if they produce harm. However, the sense of right and wrong, what’s fair and what is not, do not always enable us to take up action.


Which is right obedience or disobedience?

It’s all contextual.

Obedience is adhered to if the person giving us the orders is qualified and if we sense or know the outcome will be positive. We accept that our system is reasonably just, even though we know injustices and inequities exist within it. It’s reasonable to disobey if any of those conditions are not true.


Please share a few examples from your research that strengthen your position on intelligent disobedience.

All of us want to believe that we wouldn’t obey harmful orders but research tells us quite the contrary. I’ve become fascinated with this topic and realized that I have taken on the task of trying to lower the incidence of inappropriate disobedience whenever and wherever I can help.

Stanly Milgram completed important research on social causes demonstrating under various conditions how people obey. He did a series of experiments asking, “Will people do anything if ordered?” https://explorable.com/stanley-milgram-experiment. Where Stanley stopped is exactly where I am continuing on. His work never went to the realm of how we could prepare ourselves for the risks associated with disobeying.

I’ll give you an example. In the 1970s, there was a rash of fatal airline crashes. It became critical to determine the root cause of why so many planes were crashing. Through careful analysis, it was determined that human error was the culprit in each case. Each instance had someone in the crew seeing something that they believed to be wrong and then not speaking up about it. Even those who might have spoken up, did so hesitantly and didn’t command the attention of the captain and crew. I’ve listened to many transcripts and it is heartbreaking to know that a minute later, everyone dies.

To prevent future failures, the airlines implemented crew resource management guidelines. Everyone is accountable if they observe anomalies to report them until the crew takes effective action to mitigate the potential risk. This program empowers airline workers to speak up about airline safety and the results have shown dramatic improvements over decades. Something so simple as empowering people to feel they can safely speak up saved lives.


Are there risks associated with working in an obedient versus disobedient corporate culture?

Well, the risks are well known in cultures that support candor as opposed to those who do not and are more rigid with adherence to obedience.

In my new book, I strongly highlight that there are risks to not being candid. For example, look at the Worldcom executive who was asked at the turn of the millennium to manipulate her monthly numbers so that the stock price didn’t lose value. She has written a letter of resignation but then tore it up. Instead of leaving that job and reporting the criminal offense, she continue to remain in jail and has the emotional burden of knowing that thousands of employees lost their jobs and thousands of investors lost their money and retirement. She may not be the ultimate perpetrator, the executives were but by not speaking up and acting obediently, she is paying the consequences and so are thousand s of others.

In my role, I try to help people say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. It requires courage.


What part does personal accountability play in challenging situations?

Personal accountability is everything.

My own personal interest in this topic goes back to my childhood when I became aware that my grandmother lost her whole family in the Holocaust in Germany. I wanted to study why people follow heinous war criminals.

I learned that secondary level doctors and engineers were put on trial if they defied orders. There was no choice in the matter to say what was happening was wrong - not without consequences or harm to you or your own family. If the people of Germany had refused to participate then they would have been subjected to the same harms. That being said, if you participate in something that you know is wrong, you are still accountable for whatever the outcome is overall. Research tells us that in tough situations the threat of consequences often override ethics. Individuals however are still culpable and cannot say they were just following orders.


Do the morals and values of the culture frame whether or not a company has a disobedient culture?

Cultural candor plays a big part in the role of an obedient versus a disobedient culture. The biggest impact is not by talking about values but when executives live by them.

If the internal codes of conduct and the espoused lists of values are not demonstrated by executives to employees, little will be achieved in the way of ethical decision making. This is a big job in corporations. Often, we see more candor supported in smaller organizations where constructive dissent is allowed.

Regardless of what a corporation does, we as individuals are accountable for our own actions. We need people to take a stand to not go along with wrong choices, and to redirect this candor to their leadership.

This is similar to when in guide dog training, a dog makes a decision to keep their master out of harm’s way. If a blind person is at a platform and they think they are lined up for the train, if the dog senses this might be off, he will disobey the command and guide the blind person safely.

That’s what employees need to do to help their leadership teams. In the end, we all have to be able to live with ourselves and know we did the right thing.


What happens when people express opposition to what they are being asked to do?

Opposition can open doors to pain. When people are shut-down, humiliated, or penalized, it sets a tone.

Stanley Milgram gave us analysis of what happens at each stage of obedience. At first people cooperate with what is being asked of them. Then they express discomfort and start to question if what is being done is really OK. At the third stage, they become concerned that what is happening is dangerous and differs from their own views.

Tensions become so great when they need to decide whether they will obey the authority figure or their conscience. This can be solved one of two ways – acquiesce to the authority figure, continue the wrong actions, and the strain will go away or take a stand and not participate – going against the company values. Without deciding, they are torn between two poles.

Often, people believed taking a stand will bring strong negative consequences. That is not always true. Taking the right stance can also encourage your management team to make the best decision, and help the company. At that point, you’ve displayed courage and integrity.


How can companies implement a culture that balances both obedient and disobedient behaviors?

For new employees, this discussion can take place during orientation programs, right alongside the environmental safety, diversity, and basic curricula. All companies are mindful of risk management and part of risk management is empowering the workforce to speak up when they see something dangerous.


How can readers learn more about your work?

My newest book is about intelligent disobedience, it is an engaging and easy read that takes a look into why people obey when they shouldn’t and how you might look at this topic in the context of school and your children.

 You can learn more about it and my work by going to www.irachaleff.com, by going to www.intelligentdisobedience.net, and www.courageousfollower.com  and www.courageousfollower.net