Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong


You don’t usually have to look very hard to find scandals or tragic stories in the media of things that others have done that could have been avoided if the person/people involved had said ‘No’ to the ill-advised or illegitimate requests made of them.

Did you know that September is Self-Improvement month? As a life-long learner I am always looking to expand my knowledge, grow and improve where I can.  I recently read Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong by Ira Chaleff, which fits in perfectly with the theme of self-improvement but on a company wide scale.

Chaleff uses both deeply disturbing and uplifting examples in his book, as well as critical but largely forgotten research to show how to create a culture where, rather than ‘just following orders,’ people hold themselves accountable to do the right thing, always.

The following is an excerpt from Chaleff’s book.

There are many instances of subordinates being pressured to do something to avoid short term risk, while more serious long term risks are ignored. Bear this in mind: when pressured to do something that violates legal, professional or moral standards, it almost always feels like a sudden shock that can numb thinking and open us to cognitive dissonance.

What kinds of examples have come to light in recent years? Here are just a few. Notice how wide the range of activities:

  •  Teachers pressured to give students answers to tests on which their school rank and funding will depend.
  •  Police pressured to underreport crime statistics when political figures need to demonstrate their effectiveness at reducing street violence.
  •  Football players urged to use concussion-causing “kill shots” on vulnerable opponents.
  •  Customs inspectors told to ignore incidents of pests on incoming plants to avoid triggering the requirement to fill out lengthy reports.
  •  Medical administrators told to file insurance claims that exaggerate the procedures used.
  •  Loan officers encouraged to declare non-existent revenues so the borrowers would appear to qualify for mortgages they couldn’t afford.
  •  Financial services clerks pressured to robo-sign home foreclosure notices  without verifying the accuracy of the data.
  • Grocery clerks told to repackage boxes of eggs that had reached their expiration date.
  • Veterans Affairs hospital administrators falsifying patient wait times to obscure the backlog in providing critical services.

Many, if not most orders to do the wrong thing, concern meeting numerical quotas or goals. Years ago, the guru of Quality Management, W. Edwards Deming, warned us of this pitfall. He argued against tying job performance ratings and monetary rewards to numerical goals. These exert pressure up and down the system to make the numbers look good, instead of continually improving the work processes and systems to achieve true quality. …

Some variation of the following steps is needed when faced with new or sudden instructions whose risks may not involve immediate consequences, but contain the potential for serious mid or long term consequences.

  1. Let yourself register the surprised, somewhat stunned reaction you are feeling to being asked to do something wrong, something unethical or in poor judgment.
  2. Resist the reflex to rationalize what you are being asked to do in order to resolve your discomfort; the discomfort is your ally in doing the right thing.
  3. Slow down the action. Use language and body signals to do so: Put up a hand like someone directing traffic and say “Hold on a minute …”
  4. Give your higher functioning mental processes a chance to recover from the shock of the inappropriate order.
  5. Examine what values are being violated and what are the real risks of complying, not just the short term risk of not complying.
  6. Ask tough, relevant questions about the orders you are receiving. Maybe you misinterpreted what you were being asked to do. Maybe you didn’t. You have a right and an obligation to clarify the order.
  7. Do not be assuaged by responses that are not answers, by attempts to rationalize the order, to shame you as being the only one questioning the order, or by promises of future correction of violations that are being ordered now.
  8. Engage the authorities giving the order; help them see how it is not in their true interest to proceed in that direction; offer reasonable alternatives.
  9. If you can’t stop the leader from stepping off the curb into oncoming risk, refuse to join him or her in doing so. Understand the danger of saying “yes” when you should say “no.”
  10. Accept the short term consequences of your choice. Appreciate the long term consequences you most likely avoided.

Reprinted with permission of Smith Publicity. Excerpted from Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong. Copyright 2015. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. All rights reserved.

What are you looking to improve upon during the month of September? If you have not read Intelligent Disobedience yet, why not make that your challenge for September and let’s all work together to create better workplaces that value integrity and doing what is right.

About the Author

Ira Chaleff is the author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now in its third edition, and coeditor of The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations, part of the Warren Bennis Leadership Series. He is the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community and a member of the ILA board of directors. He is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter on Courageous Followership and transforming hierarchical relationships into powerful partnerships. Chaleff is founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, which provides coaching, consulting, and facilitation to companies, associations, and agencies. He is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University, where Courageous Followership is part of the core curriculum in its professional management training for staff. Chaleff lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Washington, D.C.

Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong is currently available via Amazon and all major online and brick-and-mortar book retailers in print, e-book, and audiobook formats.

Find Chaleff on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads and

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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