What do you do when a policeman or an air stewardess ask you to do something? Do you do it, or do you ignore them? I imagine the overwhelming majority of you said you do it when thinking about that question. After all, obedience to authority is a societal norm the world over. Society expects us to do what we are told by those in a position of authority. But should we always obey? Can it actually be beneficial to not obey? What if the instructions could cause harm to another? Should you follow those orders? This is the subject of Intelligent Disobedience written by Ira Chaleff.

Are the orders reasonable and legitimate?

It is of course right to follow orders in the right circumstances. But there are plenty of examples of when orders should not be followed. As a rule of thumb, you should ask yourself are the orders reasonable and legitimate? For example, if you imagine you are a junior surgeon assisting an experienced surgeon during an operation. If the senior surgeon asks you to perform an action as part of the surgery, it makes sense to follow the order. It is a reasonable and legitimate request. However, if the Hospital Janitor were to provide medical instructions to the junior surgeon, it is not a reasonable and legitimate request. The same would be the case if the senior surgeon were trying to instruct the janitor on how to clean the operating theatre. The surgeon may be the best but has neither the authority nor expertise to advise the janitor. Likewise, if a policeman instructed you to strip down to your underwear and dance in the street, it is not a reasonable and legitimate request.

Will obeying cause harm?

There is an assumption among many that obedience is good, and disobedience is bad. But what are you supposed to do when you are asked to do something that is dangerous or immoral or likely to cause others harm? After all, many Nazi’s tried to use the defence that they were “just following orders” when it came to the horrific atrocities that they took part in. We all like to claim that we would never do such a thing, but scientific research has proven that the majority of people will hurt someone else if ordered to do so by someone in authority. Those who would not commit such an act display intelligent disobedience. They understand the request is coming from someone in authority but understand the negative implications of obeying and instead choose to disobey orders instead. The correct thing to do in such circumstances is to deploy intelligent disobedience.

Leaders should encourage disobedience

Effective leaders understand the value of intelligent disobedience and actively encourage their team to use it. We have all worked for managers who think any suggestion of doing things differently is seen as a personal attack. No one thinks that kind of manager is a joy to work with. The best leaders on the other hand, understand that there may be a better way and encourage their team to voice their opinions. They understand that intelligent disobedience allows the team as a whole to perform to the best of their abilities. Of course, the disobedience needs to be communicated in a constructive way. It is a bit like complaining. Anyone can criticise, but if you are going to criticise someone, you had better have a better solution for them. The same goes for disobedience. You can disobey, but you must be able to communicate why you are disobeying and a valid reason for doing. Conformity for the sake of convenience should never be an option.