I once worked for a technology company that encouraged employees to practice what they called “Intelligent Disobedience.” The concept originates from seeing-eye dogs: while dogs must learn to obey the commands of a blind person, they must also know when they need to disobey commands that can put the owner in harm’s way, such as when a car is approaching.
Intelligent disobedience is not about setting out to be disagreeable or arbitrarily disobeying rules for its own sake. Rather, it is about using your judgment to decide when, for example, an established rule actually hinders your organization, rather than helps it. The antonym of intelligent disobedience is blind conformity. Conformity smoothes our day’s journey at work. Conformity, however, can have its downsides. It saps creativity for one, and it is, in John F. Kennedy’s parlance, “the enemy of growth.”
Here are some ideas to inspire you and others in your team to establish a culture that values intelligent disobedience:
1. Consider the benefits of decentralizing some of the decision-making in your unit. If you are used to making all the decisions, allow those closest to the customer the flexibility to make appropriate decisions on the spot. This places the value where it should be—on customer satisfaction rather than on lockstep adherence to the process—but it also places value on team members by giving them the authority to bend the rules when necessary.
2. Don’t surround yourself with yes-men. Ponder the words of Barry Rand of Xerox, quoted in Colin Powell’s A Leadership Primer: “…if you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant.”
3. Beware of naysayers. Consider the source of those who vigorously advise you against a change initiative. Sharpen your social and organizational awareness skills by carefully analyzing what their self-interest might be. In this regard, take a page from Guy Kawasaki’s Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services: “The status quo will always try to shoot down a good idea, especially if it threatens their position.”
4. Don’t take expert opinion as the final word. If your own experience or knowledge tells you otherwise, don’t automatically silence your inner voice because it is drowned by the din of the expert crowd. Above all, spend the time to glean the experts from the quasi-experts in your field.
5. Catch yourself if you habitually insist on “going by the book.” Ask yourself: Is this necessary for every issue? Might you enhance your team’s productivity if you paid more attention to the restraining effect that this could have on the people involved? What would happen if you built some elasticity in your rules, if you allowed others to apply standard procedures more flexibly?
6. Become aware of your mental scripts. In Everyday Survival: Why Smart People do Stupid Things, Laurence Gonzales talks about the dumb mistakes we make when we work from a mental script that does not match the requirements of the real-world situation. Mental scripts are our conditioned responses to various situations. Mental scripts push us, for example, to stubbornly cling to the notion that “this is how we have always done it” and to refuse to accept the realities of a new situation. So we find ourselves mistakenly generalizing into the future whatever worked in the past—this is a slippery path.
7. Help your people distinguish between fact and conjecture. Conjecture can be influenced by mental scripts which don’t have a bearing on current reality. Be the voice in the room that calls attention to this possibility and help everyone pause so that they can analyze inferences and conjectures that may or may not be valid.
8. Examine your reaction when confronted with new ideas. Seth Godin compiled a list of responses to actual good ideas. If any of these describe some of your habitual responses, consider how you might practice being more receptive to others’ notions. Defending the status quo is a sure-fire way to extinguish the spark of new ideas in your group.
9. Establish a culture that values common sense over bureaucracy. Encourage everyone on your team to cast a critical eye on all procedures, practices and policies in their area. Which ones are no longer relevant? Which ones impede or delay the flow of critical information? Which ones cause make-shift work? Which ones are plain dumb? Which traditions have petrified?
10. Get comfortable saying no. Intelligent disobedience also involves having the ability to say no. If you struggle with this, read The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No. In the book, William Ury, outlines how to master the art of delivering what he calls “a positive No.” This is a powerful three-step process of marrying a No with a Yes:
a) Yes! (Becoming conscious of the positive foundation for your No—for example, core interests or values)
b) No. (Respectfully explaining your No, linking it to your positive foundation)
c) Yes? (Having a plan B—that is, another positive outcome for the other party)
11. Make it safe for people to push back. This provides a platform from which people can rise and develop, and is also the mark of a confident leader who has the maturity to know that he or she cannot possibly have all the right answers. Allow others to connect the dots their own way.
12. Be aware of mind traps that lead to blind conformity. Mind traps act as mental straight-jackets, preventing you from thinking creatively and rationally. These include, for example, the “herd instinct”, i.e. relying on the fact that “everybody else is doing it.” Here is a compiled list of the ten most common thinking traps.
13. Question the blind assumptions that can hurt your business. In
Rules to Break and Laws to Follow: How Your Business Can Beat the Crisis of Short-Termism (Microsoft Executive Leadership Series), the authors expose three false assumptions about how a business creates value—these are, among the rules to consider breaking:
a) The best measure of success for your business is current sales and profit
b) With the right sales and marketing effort, you can always get more customers
c) Company value is created by offering differentiated products and services
14. Reconsider your need for harmony at the expense of progress. We are often reticent to challenge the process for fear of disquieting others who resist change. A component of emotional intelligence is the ability to be a change catalyst: to build the courage to champion change despite opposition.
15. Become aware of your three most rigidly-held beliefs. Write them down. Explore what cognitive shifts you can make to soften your position on these. Think of the emotions that drive these beliefs. Could some of them be motivated by fear? What might these unbendable beliefs prevent you from achieving?
The well-beaten path may be comfortable because it allows us to move along, without having to exert much effort, but it is the path that ultimately leads to mediocrity. As Emerson said, long ago, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.” If you are a leader in charge of others, allow space for them to leave their own footprints.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the President of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., Clarion Enterprises Ltd. a firm that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership and presentation skills training. Her latest book, The Leader as a Mensch, explains how you can become the kind of person others want to follow.