Intelligent Disobedience
In Leadership


I recently read a headline about Intelligent Disobedience and went down a rabbit hole that lasted 24 hours and counting. I love the concept of intelligent disobedience but to thrive it needs psychological safety. Let’s review. 

The term intelligent disobedience comes from the world of seeing eye dogs. In training these service pets, Intelligent Disobedience is defined as: ‘a concept where any service animal trained to help a disabled person goes directly against their owner’s instructions in an effort to make a better decision’.

You actually don’t want the seeing eye dog to follow all of your instructions, or disaster could occur. The same concept applies to leadership in organisations. You want your best team members to use critical decision-making to make better decisions, with the information available at that moment, to increase and enhance your ability to serve your clients. Success follows quickly when a team is enabled with this concept, with defined guidelines (called accountability and a framework). 


This is a concept of psychological safety – the ability to challenge the status quo.


According to Bob McGannon, author of Intelligent Disobedience: the Difference between Good and Great Leaders,  intelligent disobedience is about valuing outcomes over compliance, when it is deemed appropriate. However, breaking the rules randomly does not work. This is where intelligent disobedience comes in; knowing when and how to break, bend or invent new rules to get better outcomes.

Obeying all of the rules rarely generates breakthrough performance because it does not generate new approaches ie no challenging of the status quo, unable to speak up, unable to trouble shoot or ideate. Breaking the rules randomly does not work either – as this would reduce trust, accountability and respect. This is where intelligent disobedience comes in; knowing when and how to break, bend or invent new rules to get better outcomes is my passion. Espousing a higher form of ethics, intelligent disobedience seeks to surface hidden truth, and produce actions that are of higher integrity, to yield superior results.


When is breaking the rules good?

Here are a few characteristics of intelligently disobedient acts:

  1. Intelligently disobedient acts are performed to achieve better business outcomes. If the action you are contemplating is to achieve a business outcome that you believe is necessary, but that perception is not shared by your management team, it will probably not be considered “intelligent.” So, you have some groundwork to complete first to “be heard” and to understand the perceptions and desired outcomes of others.
  2. Engaged and collaborative actionsNot siloed. In this case, the appropriate intelligently disobedient act would be to engage your management team in conversations to change their views on business success, rather than try to achieve outcomes that would not be appreciated.
  3. Validated and factually based arguments. If your proposed action represents opposition to widely accepted norms or corporate culture, you will want to perform “homework” to validate your views. Make sure you have your facts laid out. You may also wish to consider the cognitive and communications differences of those you are trying to persuade. Understanding what puts your colleagues into a threat or reward will assist you in crafting your argument in a way that is not threatening.
  4.  There are implications and consequences of every action. Understanding the implications of engaging in actions that may be unpopular (ie challenging management on a business as usual basis, challenging power dynamics) and consequences of not taking action (physical harm/patient harm). These are often the “punishments” we discuss when we look at an environment of psychological safety. If there is a threat of punishment, leaders will not have created an environment that promotes psychological safety nor intelligent disobedience. 
  5. An integrity risk. Which leads to the final characteristic and most important. Where an action is taken to protect your integrity or the integrity of the business. This is where poor behaviour and action may be hidden and there is significant pressure for people to “follow” – Enron, Wells Fargo, VW, NAB. Ethical slide is a dangerous path. Once you compromise your ethics and values, you automatically make excuses which makes it easier to commit the act again and again – thus ethical slide. It is a lot harder and to remain true to your values and ethics than it is to compromise them. 

Principles for leaders

If you are a leader wishing to take advantage of the benefits of intellectual disobedience, I would strongly recommend that you focus on creating psychological safety within your teams. 

However, here are four “intelligent disobedience” principles that are recommended for leaders by author, Bob McGannon.

Principle 1: Empower employees toward strategic goals

The more you empower your team, the more they will grow and thrive. By giving your team members generous boundaries, you give them freedom to act and make their own decisions. Empower employees to deliver on strategic initiatives ie what can we do better to serve our customers/patients (CX driver). What can we do to eliminate three (3) stupid rules (efficiency goals).

Principle 2: Encourage employees to challenge your decisions

Challenging ideas and pursing continuous improvement, customer centricity, innovation are all ways to avoid “business as usual thinking”. Allowing employees to be curious and seeking feedback ensures continuous checks and balances with all stakeholders. Critical thinkers keep you honest, ideate, mitigate bias (if you have diversity) and builds a resilient organisation. 

In the book by Carolyn Grant, “Legacy Leadership – the emergence of a new leadership model after more than a decade of crisis”, there is clear evidence linking collaboration and psychological safety to innovation and business sustainability. Importantly the skills required by leaders to facilitate and encourage collaboration and build an environment of psychological safety are in line with those espoused by The Center for Creative Leadership based on their research which said we need leaders with the following skill sets. Leaders who inspire commitment, build collaborative relationships, steady change management, take initiative and lead employees. Unfortunately, it was also identified that they are the greatest gaps in leadership with few having those skills. 

For organisations wishing to build a sustainable competitive difference with customer experience, products and services, or innovation – you will need to have created an environment of psychological safety where employees are empowered to solve problems, trouble shoot and find better ways to achieve positive outcomes. 

Principle 3: Encourage risk taking

Intelligent disobedience is not without a degree of risk but Bob McGannon encourages leaders to think about risk differently. There is the short-term risk of facing your manager when you want to break the rules. But if that same manager comes to your office and says, “Look at this horrible outcome. Did you know this was going to happen? What did you do about it?” and your answer is, “I just followed the rules,” that’s a greater risk. Recognising the truth and having the courage to speak it lies at the heart of intelligent disobedience.

However, if leaders have a “punishment” mentality to risks taken that are defined as “unsuccessful” in the past then there may be significant work to do within your culture to encourage risks to be taken. Again, it comes down to the environment created by leaders currently and in the past. 

Principle 4: Treat your team like valued family members

There is a proven correlation between job satisfaction and job engagement. Businesses value employees and create a culture of empathy, mutual trust and give employees permission to participate fully (ie with all of their skillsets). When employees feel like they belong, they are valued and cared for you have reached the first stage of psychological safety – and the right environment for people to connect and take risks with each other.   A caring work environment based on trust and respect and empowerment, allows people to fully engage their heads and their hearts. 

Principle 5: Create an environment of psychological safety

The environment needed to encourage and nurture intelligent disobedience is called a psychologically safe one. A culture based on psychological safety means that leaders are encouraging their employees to connect and belong, feel safe to ask for help, to contribute and to challenge the status quo. If you have not created this environment the benefits of intelligent disobedience will elude you and the organisation you lead. 

A really good read and great resources for those interested. Books | Intelligent Disobedience Leadership “

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