Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Just Say No

In a new book, leadership expert Ira Chaleff argues teaching employees to disobey orders is an essential management safeguard.

I was one of those toddlers whose first word — if you choose to believe my mother — was an emphatic “No,” so I’ve always found it hard to believe that people need disobedience instruction. Then I read the stories in Ira Chaleff’s new book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong (Berrett-Koehler, 2015).

The story I found most shocking took place in a McDonald’s in a small town in Kentucky in 2004. The restaurant’s 51-year-old manager received a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer; he told her that an 18-year-old female employee had been accused of stealing a customer’s purse. Rather than subject the young woman to arrest and a search at police headquarters, the officer suggested that it might be less distressful if the manager herself searched the woman for evidence of the crime.

The manager agreed and, following the officer’s directions over the phone, stripped the crying woman and searched her clothing in a locked storeroom. When the manager told the officer that she had to go back to work, the officer asked if she could call her husband to watch the woman until the police arrived. Instead, the unmarried manager called her boyfriend, who proceeded to follow the officer’s increasingly sexually abusive instructions (with the manager checking in on occasion). Four hours after the call began, the officer told the manager to bring another man into the room, and she found a handyman who was in the restaurant. The handyman refused to participate, at which point the manager began to act on her own misgivings and eventually allowed the woman to dress and leave the restaurant.

It was, of course, a sadistic hoax. The caller, an off-duty prison guard in Florida, had been making similar calls to fast-food restaurants throughout the U.S. Incredibly, he had been able to convince the managers of nearly 70 other restaurants in 30 states to illegally detain and search employees — and the employees themselves had obeyed their managers’ outrageous instructions.

If you are familiar with the experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, who wrote the foreword to Intelligent Disobedience, you already know that most people have been conditioned to obey orders given by authority figures, including orders that violate moral, ethical, and legal norms. “It is part of the socialization process in any human culture to teach our young to obey,” writes Chaleff. But he goes on to argue that teaching employees to disobey orders is an essential organizational safeguard — that nurses are protecting patients and their employers by questioning doctors’ orders that fly in the face of their training, and that accountants can prevent massive frauds by refusing to execute orders that violate their professional standards.

In a new book, leadership expert Ira Chaleff argues teaching employees to disobey orders is an essential management safeguard.

The problem, Chaleff points out, is that we receive little or no counter-conditioning to our obedience-focused upbringing. Unless you are a natural-born naysayer, it is likely that you find it difficult to stand up to authority. And even if you are, like me, one of those pains in the organizational neck, you probably don’t know how to disobey in constructive and effective ways.

Chaleff found the solution to this human problem in canines. Service dogs, like those that guide people with sight impairments, are taught “intelligent disobedience.” They learn how to identify and disobey orders that might cause harm to their charges. A service dog that is ordered forward will use its body to stop its owner from stepping off a curb if there is a potential danger, such as a quiet electric car; it will turn right or left to protect its owner from a low-hanging tree limb on a walk in the woods. “We can use the guide dog,” writes Chaleff, “as a memorable symbol for the capacity to which we aspire: to do the right thing when what we are told to do is wrong.”

Typically, humans want dogs to act more like people. (Sit! Stay!) Chaleff effectively suggests that people act more like these dogs. But the training required to do so doesn’t involve biscuits or rolled-up newspapers that can be wielded as rewards and punishment. Rather, we can short-circuit the ingrained habit of employees to automatically obey orders by teaching them to follow a formula that Chaleff distills as so:

1.)   Understand the mission of the organization, the goals of your activities, and the values that are supposed to govern how you achieve those goals.

2.)   If you receive an order that seems to violate the mission, goals, or values, ask for clarification. Then, further evaluate the order to determine the source of the problem (whether it involves safety, legality, morality, etc.).

3.)   Consciously decide whether to obey the order or whether to resist it and offer an acceptable alternative if possible.

4.)   Assume personal accountability for whichever choice you make.

As an experienced consultant, Chaleff recognizes that handing everyone in your company a laminated card with this formula won’t overcome decades of social programming. That will take a much greater effort and sustained investment: training for employees; a willingness of managers to accept, and moreover, reward intelligent disobedience; ongoing practicums; and often, systemic change to remove barriers to behavior change.

Is it worth it? Consider the outcomes in the fast-food restaurant story. The manager was prosecuted and received one year of probation, and her boyfriend was sentenced to five years in jail. After years of litigation and appeals, the traumatized young woman settled her claim against the restaurant chain for US$1.1 million. And the caller? He was acquitted for lack of evidence.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.