Cultivate Intelligent Disobedience

A recent coaching conversation with a senior leader provided great insights. This client described a situation where an employee followed their company policies but his customer did not feel heard during the interaction.

I need staff to see beyond our policies and procedures. We sometimes need to be flexible in dealing with our customer’s circumstances,” this senior leader stated.

This client was describing a vital skill set for guide dogs for the blind. Years ago two colleagues visited a guide dog organization to learn the best practices of training service dogs. They learned that sometimes the best dogs don’t make it to graduation. The washout dogs’ issue? They obey every command. The dogs that graduate and go on to serve sight-impaired masters demonstrate intelligent disobedience – they obey commands only if those commands make sense.

“Great service dogs are very attuned to their owner’s needs. The dogs’ purpose is to keep their owners safe while engaging in everyday activities,” the trainer explained. “That means that when the dogs are given commands that risk their owner’s safety – being told to cross the street when there is oncoming traffic – they refuse.”

Why Staff Do What They Do

I probed my client’s assumptions about why his staff do what they do, today. Why would they follow policies and procedures, even when they don’t make sense? The client admitted that their organization monitors adherence to policies regularly. The company redirects staff who do not follow procedures and celebrate staff who follow procedures consistently.

I said, “You and your leaders have taught staff to strictly follow policies and procedures.” He agreed. Their company has reinforced policy alignment and have quashed any thoughtful approach to do something different if the policies are, well, stupid in a particular circumstance.

Adherence to policies and procedures is generally a good thing in organizations. And, if my client wants staff to modify application of policies in certain circumstances, their workplace culture must create the conditions for staff to do that.

Cultivating Intelligent Disobedience

These three key conditions will help any organization to enable staff to make good decisions when existing policies and procedures miss the mark.

  • Define Purpose & Values
    Make clear your company’s “reason for being” – then reinforce it regularly. Ensure all staff know the company’s purpose. Then define values in behavioral terms. This will set the benchmark of what good corporate citizens look, act, and sound like.
  • Delegate Authority to Talented Staff
    Talented staff deserve the responsibility and authority to act independently. W.L. Gore has a concept in their culture called “waterline.” Staff earn the right over time to make decisions. Each are given a monetary standard that defines their waterline; if a decision risks more than their monetary standard, those staff seek insight from others to ensure their decision is the right one. Let talented staff use their heads, hearts, and hands in the workplace.
  • Refine Policies & Procedures
    Create mechanisms to learn, every day, from talented staff experiences. You’ll spot stupid policies and can fix them. You’ll identify the most common “out of the norm” customer needs that are cropping up. See your policy manual as a “working document.”

Putting these conditions in place will inspire your talented staff to do the right thing, even as that “right thing” evolves.

What is your experience with “intelligent disobedience” in the workplace? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

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10 Responses to Cultivate Intelligent Disobedience

  1. christian February 21, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    The front desk agent kept jumping up and down. Finally, he climbed on top of the desk. His co-worker looked at him as if he were crazy and asked him what he was doing. He responded “I can’t see the guests. There are too many rules blocking my view!”

    • Chris Edmonds February 21, 2012 at 9:04 am #

      Brilliant, Christian! Thanks for sharing this – it’s a perfect example of how leaders create hurdles for great employee performance.



  2. Amber Wallace February 21, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    Great points! I think this holds true for both policies and procedures and managing in general. I see this in the corporate world, but I see it even more in the non-profit world, where talented people who are able to run with their ideas without the red tape are able to accomplish great things for themselves and the organization. It depends on the person, of course. I’ll remember the guide dog piece for future conversations!

    • Chris Edmonds February 21, 2012 at 9:47 am #

      Perfect example, Amber – I saw that too in the non-profit world (where I spent 15 years in management).



  3. Todd Nissen February 21, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Sometimes common sense just can’t help trumping a blind directive! In the military they term this “out” as an “unlawful order” which does not have to be followed. This acts as a guard against the excuse of “I was just following orders”.

    Plan on using this as my rationale many times in the near future!


    • Chris Edmonds February 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

      Terrific example, Todd – thanks for sharing!



  4. Bill February 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Great commentary. I would also add that common sense is not so common. There is also a need for COURAGE to sometimes try something that is different to find out if it is better. Both the boss and the employee need to have courage.

    • Chris Edmonds February 21, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

      Thank you, Bill! Courage is absolutely necessary – possibly from the boss FIRST to enable followers to feel comfortable challenging policies and procedures that may not serve customers well.



    • christian February 22, 2012 at 5:36 am #




  1. Effective Leadership and Mentoring for Those Who Want to Succeed | CWC Virtual Mentor - February 27, 2012

    […] Cultivate Intelligent Disobedience: This is an interesting article because it uses guide dogs to demonstrate leadership. For instance, the best guide dogs obey only when the command makes sense to them. Guide dogs are attuned to their owner’s needs and their sole purpose is to keep them safe. It’s a short article with insightful tips. […]

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