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Why Companies Should Embrace Intelligent Disobedience

We can learn a lot about speaking up when something is wrong from guide dog training, and an airplane’s black box.

Why Companies Should Embrace Intelligent Disobedience
[Photo: skeeze via Pixabay]

From Volkswagen to the NFL, company scandals frequently make news, but could these problems have been averted if employees had been empowered to speak up?

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Yes, says Ira Chaleff, author of Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong.

“We are all socialized from a very early age to obey authority,” he says. “We can rebel against it, but there is deep programming inside of us that you don’t speak out of turn. For a few of us, this comes naturally, but for most of us it doesn’t. We follow the order even when we’re uncomfortable and think it’s wrong. We have to overcome this.”

People can actually learn a lot from guide dogs, says Chaleff. When they’re trained, they spend their first 18 months being socialized, learning to obey commands. But then guide dogs take their knowledge to a higher level: The next step is that they’re taught intelligent disobedience.

“A dog must know when it gets a command that, if executed, would produce harm for its team–itself and its owner,” says Chaleff. “It must not obey even if a command is repeated. This provides a wonderful metaphor for humans.”

Intelligent disobedience has been explored effectively in specific industries. Chaleff says groundbreaking work was done in the aviation industry where fatal airline crashes in the 1970s could have been avoided.

“The black box recording often shows that a member of the crew saw something wrong and tried to get captain’s attention but was blown off,” he says. “When you listen to the recording, a minute and 20 seconds later everybody dies.”

The aviation industry empowered its employees by making it everyone’s responsibility to assertively and repeatedly bring attention to a problem. If after a third time the command is ignored, the copilot is authorized to take control. “This dramatically improved airline safety,” says Chaleff.

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The medical industry, particularly hospitals, took the airline model and adapted it to its environment, reducing operating room errors. But while hospitals and airlines deal with life-and-death decisions every day, any company can benefit from intelligent disobedience, says Chaleff.

“From a risk-management point of view, boards of directors, CEOs, and senior leaders need to determine how they’re inadvertently creating a culture that doesn’t support candor,” he says.

Chaleff says intelligent disobedience is different than whistleblowing. “We’re trying to create an internal culture where candor is invited and respected,” he says. “It’s a place where problems can be internally corrected before there’s a need for whistleblowing.”

The solution rests inside the culture of the company. You must create an environment to overcome this condition.

Empower Voices

First, companies need to support an individual who has the courage to speak up. Employees should be trained so that if they see a potential problem, they should confer with a trusted colleague if there is time. “It may turn out that they’re off the mark,” says Chaleff. “But if they have time to process, employees should socialize around the topic, build support, and do it in a way where it’s politically savvy.”

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Employees should also be trained to speak with an assertive enough voice so their point is heard. “When you speak with an aggressive voice, it sounds like a challenge, and you’ll more likely get shut down,” he says. “Having too weak a voice was the problem in the airline industry. Employees should be trained to speak assertively, with timing and respectfulness.”

Identify Chains

Finally, management needs to be trained to pay attention: “Through experiments, we know that if one person speaks up, they will get shut down,” says Chaleff. “If a second person supports him, and especially a third, they almost always get listened to. Mid-level managers need to understand that if an employee is speaking up about a potential safety issue or a very bad decision, they shouldn’t leave them out on that limb.”

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While speaking up isn’t always welcome, that doesn’t absolve the individual, says Chaleff. “It’s no defense to say you’re following orders,” he says. “You violate safety protocol, and you have a responsibility to speak up.

“CEOs have told me, ‘What keeps me up at night is that my people aren’t telling me what I need to hear.’ A dog is a man’s best friend, and I think of intelligent disobedience as a CEO’s best friend.”

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