Intelligent Disobedience Part 2


This is one of a series of posts on Intelligent Disobedience  by Ira Chaleff.

In an earlier post, I outlined the process of deciding whether to obey an order:

  • The system we are part of is reasonably fair and functioning.
  • The authority figure giving the order or setting the rule is legitimate and reasonably competent.
  • The order itself is reasonably constructive.

If none of my company’s or personal values is being violated, I should probably do as I’m told even if it strikes me that the order is unusual. But if any of those criteria above are not in place, I should employ intelligent disobedience, which Chaleff defines as “resisting as effectively as I can, while searching for another way.


Chaleff also provides a framework for resisting or trying to draw attention to an order that may be a mistake. It takes real courage to resist an order from a superior, made more difficult when leaders perceive resistance as challenging their authority or intelligence. Once you have tripped the ego wire, you may trigger emotions that make it even harder for a leader to change course.

The key, Chaleff says, is to train the team (including, and especially, the leader) to assume that intelligent disobedience makes no presumption of malice or criticism of the leader; it is designed to protect the safety of the team or customers or the public. The presumption must be that intelligent disobedience will prevent harm by slowing down the current course of events and allowing team members and the leader to think more deeply about what is happening.

Chaleff says that you must train yourself to pay attention to your instincts. The first signal that something is wrong will be a feeling that you’ve often had but may not trust. Call it a hunch, a niggling suspicion, sinking feeling, gut reaction, or its technical term: cognitive dissonance.  Chaleff says that you must practice recognizing it when it happens and learn to sit quietly with the feeling until you can identify the source.

What triggered your response? Was it the unusual body language of your boss when he asked you to make a change to the numbers? Was it the uneasiness in the eyes of the person who made the request? Was it the surprise in your assistant’s face when you issued that order? It’s easy to push away the unease you feel in favor of obedience, but your instincts are an important first warning system.

Many disasters could be averted if team members knew how to escalate their concerns to make sure the team leader understood the urgency of the situation. But hesitation and deference to authority can allow leaders to push aside concerns. Courageous followers learn to change their language to match their level of concern

Level 1 is used when a situation is ambiguous or not urgent: “I’m not sure if you noticed this, but…” or “I’m not sure these numbers are right – could we take another look?” Chaleff calls this soft approach mitigating language; its intent is to softly point out that the team would benefit from another check of its assumptions before taking action.

As the situation becomes more urgent or you become more certain that something is wrong, you must make your language less soft and more urgent, climbing a scale from “mildly assertive” to “insistently assertive.” “Something’s wrong here.” “I don’t feel good about this.” “This approach poses a serious risk to…”

Finally, if there is a clear and present danger if the team stays on this course, you have an obligation to stop what’s happening. “Stop now.  We are in danger of…” This is the equivalent of pushing someone out of the way of a moving car. You’d never worry about whether you should push someone important; the immediate danger overrides concerns about rank or protocol. The Pope won’t mind being pushed.

Next: What we can learn from guide dogs.

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