I have been going through Bob McGannon’s Linkedin course on ‘Leading with Intelligent Disobedience‘, he brings up the concept of ‘malicious obedience’. It is the behaviour that follows from ‘well, if that’s what you want’. And it is probably what we engage in more often than we are proud of.
I think by juxtaposing intelligent disobedience with malicious obedience, one suddenly recognise rules for the place they should be. Yet more often than not, we follow rules somewhat blindly, out of laziness, fear or lethargy, when there might be more wisdom and intelligence in breaking them. Of course, here, we recognise another dimension for following the rules – it is to do so with malicious intent.
Of course, the malicious intent might not spring up overnight. It could be employees who knew something was wrong and sounded the alarms but the management refused to heed. It could be a child protesting the stupidity of a rule at home and not having received the appropriate explanation for why the rule was in place. So the risk of not empowering others with the ability to disobey intelligently is that we send the wrong message about what obedience is about.
Bob McGannon introduces some rules for breaking the rules when talking about intelligent disobedience which I found to be useful in general even without considering the notion of intelligent disobedience. He suggested some really quick considerations:
Do it as an exception: only when the standard rules don’t work.
Don’t do it in stealth: Convey your intention and explain the reasons you’re breaking the rules.
Not to be passive aggressive: you don’t play nice and say you’re going to follow the rules and then leave your boss’ room and then break them.
Don’t break the law: if a rule is based on a law, you need to make sure that you’re not acting in a manner that breaks the law.
Why putting these ideas upfront is important for management and also within the context of any organisation is that you want people to be acting intelligently and have a clear robust process for exceptions. It doesn’t mean you create extra bureaucracy; if anything, it is to allow people to act wisely and be allowed to face the music later if they agreed it is a mistake.
Within an organisation, by introducing these ideas, you empower employees and treat them maturely as individuals rather than a cog in the system. In practically all areas of life, when we need people to be more autonomous, we naturally will end up hiring the best people.
Through the Linkedin learning course by Bob McGannon, I became acquainted with the idea of intelligent disobedience. I think the premise that he lays out is pretty interesting. That the human world is made of many rules and usually, 95% of the time, these rules work but then there is always 5% of the time when it doesn’t. This is when circumstances are extraordinary, when the situation is not as expected by the rule-makers and so on.
The exceptions are what calls for intelligent disobedience. After all, the reason that a person should be put in a job is not because he knows all the rules on the job. He needs needs to be able to follow, but more importantly, he needs to know when to break them. If rule-following is all it takes, then the cockpit of most commercial aircraft technically don’t require pilots. It is the need to take exceptional actions that we need professionals to take certain roles.
Talents are basically known to be the ones who break rules. They don’t get punished for them; in fact more often than not, they are celebrated. Philip Yeo is a good example of that in Singapore. In fact, he probably exhibited most traits of intelligent disobedience in most of his stories of defiance that he recorded in his book, “Neither civil nor servant”. To a large extent, risk-taking involves a lot more nuanced thinking than the manner our Singaporean culture allows for.
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