We all like to imagine ourselves as original thinkers. So it was a shock to read in a Jan. 30 New York Times op-ed by Adam Grant that even the most gifted people often fail to be truly creative. They “learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores,” wrote Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own.”
This immediately made me think of the groundbreaking work of my friend Ira Chaleff, an executive coach and consultant who recently published “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong.” Helping people learn when to break the rules is a passion for Chaleff, whose 1995 book, “The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders,” is now in its third edition.
In “Intelligent Disobedience,” he uses the analogy of a guide dog who learns to follow its human leader’s signals except when they’re unsafe — for example, when crossing the street may be dangerous. In the same way, Chaleff asserts, followers need to disobey when obeying a leader’s orders or rules will cause damage.
Unfortunately, most of us are conditioned to follow orders, please our bosses and not make waves even if some action or policy makes us ethically uncomfortable.
In a profession whose plethora of rules discourages deviations, can financial advisors foster a culture that values and supports “intelligent disobedience” instead of squelching it? I asked Chaleff for guidance.
Olivia Mellan: When is disobedience “intelligent”?
Ira Chaleff: Guide dogs are trained to use a “counter pull” if the human leader of the team is about to step in front of an oncoming train or fall onto the tracks.
The criterion for intelligent disobedience is similar: to not obey if obeying is likely to produce harm. For example, say you are told to deny a high-producing employee’s request for emergency leave. Because you know this would proably result in the employee quitting, you should refrain from obeying while you sort out the matter.
Doing the right thing is a higher value than obedience. Sure, it requires good judgment, and sometimes that judgment may be wrong. But we should be more frightened of a culture that discourages people from exercising any kind of judgment.
Good Dog, Good Dog, Good Dog
Among the valuable information in Ira Chaleff’s new book, “Intelligent Disobedience,” I loved learning that in teaching a guide dog to intelligently disobey, the dog is praised three times when he gets it right. If he gets it wrong, he’s gently admonished and trained to complete the action correctly. Maybe this is a management skill worth cultivating.
Mellan: What would be the opposite of intelligent disobedience?
Chaleff: One kind of opposite is unthinking obedience. History shows how dangerous that can be.
The other kind is knee-jerk opposition to authority. Most of the time, executives or managers issue reasonable orders. They may not be brilliant orders, but as long as they won’t do harm it’s usually best to support them. If we fought everything we were asked to do, we would exhaust ourselves and our managers, and soon wear out our welcome.
Mellan: Suppose a junior advisor sees that her boss has recommended a variable annuity with an eight-year surrender period for an 80-year-old. The advisor feels this is inappropriate for an elderly client, even though it will pay a hefty commission. She’s new in the job, though, and hesitates to make waves. What should she do?
Chaleff: Even though this is a scary situation for the junior advisor, she needs to do the right thing.
First of all, she knows the investment is not right. Furthermore, when the client pays a steep penalty a couple of years later for withdrawing from the annuity, his advocate may file a complaint with the firm’s regulator. The junior advisor will have avoided the short-term pain of saying “No,” but she, her firm and her boss may suffer much greater long-term pain.
No one can force you to do something you believe is wrong. You may experience great pressure to do it, but you can’t be compelled to do it.