At a glance
A vision-impaired person stands on the kerb with their guide dog, waiting to safely cross the road. They give the dog a command to cross, unaware that a near-silent electric car is quickly approaching the crossing.
In this instance, a dog that obeys every command exposes itself and its human companion to the risk of injury or death.
However, a dog that ignores its master in favour of a different course of action delivers a safer outcome.
As this example shows, while obedience is an essential trait in many instances, the capacity for disobedience at the right moment is just as important.
This concept is known in the world of guide dogs as intelligent disobedience.
“You spend the first 18 months training a seeing-eye dog how to behave and the next 12 to 18 months training it when and how not to behave, because the dog has to act in the best interests of both it and its master,” says leadership expert Bob McGannon.
In his book Intelligent Disobedience: The Difference Between Good and Great Leaders, McGannon applies the same concept to the workplace.
“The best leaders and managers I have worked for in my career do break the rules once in a while,” he says.
“Not because they want to be radical, but for a specific purpose with a specific outcome.”
A solution for the 2 per cent
Intelligent disobedience is a necessary ingredient for innovation and growth.
A business process that is effective 98 per cent of the time is “a really good business process”, says McGannon. “The question is, what about the other 2 per cent?”
In rare circumstances, following the standard process will not deliver the desired outcome. This is when McGannon advocates applying intelligent disobedience.
“Intelligent disobedience is what applies to the 2 per cent. Alter the process, abandon the process or break the rules – whatever the case may be – in the best interest of the business.”
In terms of the right time to deploy intelligent disobedience, it is critical to note that intelligent disobedience is highly contextual.
“If you are in the army and you question a senior officer’s orders publicly, that is not a good idea,” says McGannon.
In that case, it is a safe bet that rule-breaking will not result in the desired outcome.
However, speaking out can deliver a positive result in a different environment.
“If you are working for Google and debating the latest process or tool, you are probably expected to challenge your senior manager in public because that is what the whole meeting is about,” McGannon says.
This means the decision to engage in intelligent disobedience requires careful evaluation of a variety of factors.
“You really need to understand the nature of the organisation, the culture, the outcomes and the expectations as to whether some individual act is intelligently disobedient or not,” says McGannon.
Rules for breaking the rules
McGannon has devised simple rules outlining when and where intelligent disobedience is appropriate.
“First and foremost, it is not for personal gain. You are doing this to create a better outcome for the organisation for which you work,” he says.
Neither is intelligent disobedience an act of passive aggression.
“It is not, ‘I just don’t like this rule, so I’m not going to follow it’. If you don’t like the rule, you need to engage in intelligent disobedience to debate it, not ignore it.”
The third rule is the “squishiest”, says McGannon. “When possible and feasible, communicate the action you are going to take that is not standard or breaking the rules before doing so.”
However, McGannon acknowledges that “communicating something that you are going to do ahead of time to try to produce an outcome isn’t always the best way to proceed” and may jeopardise the chance of success.
McGannon suggests that, at times, it is “easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”.
However, he recommends conducting due diligence to ensure you do not unwittingly do anything illegal.
“The first thing you need to know about the process is whether it is a process that is internal to the business or one that supports something you have to do to conform with the law,” he says.
Recognise intelligent disobedience
Intelligent disobedience is not always about breaking the rules. Sometimes, it is simply the pursuit of a non-standard course of action.
McGannon describes one example where a manager working in a highly hierarchical organisation introduced a “badge-in-a-box” meeting, where all team members would drop their ID badge in a box on the way into the meeting room.
By asking people to remove their name badges, the manager sought to create a safe space to candidly share ideas and insights without fear of backlash.
In doing so, the manager created valuable communication pathways in an organisation where hierarchy had previously stifled frank debate, observes McGannon.
“He broke organisational standards by dismissing the hierarchy and got some really good results.”