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Say No to Your Boss With ‘Intelligent Disobedience’

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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.

Mellan: In an organization where the culture is “go along to get along,” is there any hope that someone can make a difference if they perceive a problem? How might they go about it?

Chaleff: We all need to learn how to perform counter pulls. One approach is to appeal to your leader’s self-interest. Managers want to look good, keep their position, earn handsome bonuses, etc. If you can link the problem to something they value, they are more likely to listen.

There’s no question that counter pulls are harder than they should be. In “Intelligent Disobedience,” I examine why this is so and discuss how we can prepare ourselves to do them.

Mellan: Do you think intelligent disobedience should be taught as part of undergraduate or graduate degrees?

Chaleff: Yes. When graduates go into the workplace, they often encounter intense pressure to “make the quarterly numbers.” The earlier you learn to take a principled stance, the better.

Even a small amount of training can equip you to do the right thing. Once you start down the slippery slope of doing the wrong thing, it’s very hard to find your footing. A bad habit known as the “normalization of deviance” sets in. For example, the boss recommended a poor investment and the world didn’t stop, so maybe it’s not a problem if he does it again. Eventually you say to yourself, “Everybody does it. It must be okay.”

Mellan: Shouldn’t a good education encourage students to question accepted wisdom?

Chaleff: I’m sorry to say that most students feel under similar pressure to make their grades that managers in the corporate world are under to make their numbers.

The entire education system from preschool through high school emphasizes obeying the rules. Creative disobedience is not given the value it deserves. Even when students are taught critical thinking skills, they are not given practice in using these skills.

I’m generalizing, and some students will naturally and productively question authority. But research shows this is often a small minority. A little skill-building and support for intelligent disobedience can produce a desirable balance between appropriate obedience and appropriate independent thinking and action.

Mellan: How would you answer an advisor who says, “I agree with the concept of intelligent disobedience, but the rules are so complicated that I don’t dare do anything different”?

Chaleff: I would tell the advisor to study the relevant rules carefully, and get some help doing so if needed. Then he or she can make a professional judgment on the right thing to do.

It’s never the right thing to say, “It’s too complicated for me to understand, so I’ll just do what I’m told.” Sooner or later you will do a wrong thing that hurts your career.

Find Courage to Take a stand

In order to do the right thing, you may need to go against the rules. That takes courage.

Intelligent disobedience requires a high degree of honesty, self-reflection and self-awareness — qualities that many of us struggle to nurture throughout our lives. But when ethics and excellence are truly supported in schools, offices, studios and other workplaces, the opportunity to become our best and most creative selves will be tremendous.

— Read Being a Fiduciary Is a Long-term Investment on ThinkAdvisor.


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