Intelligent Disobedience 1st

Doing Right When What You're Told to Do Is Wrong

Ira Chaleff (Author) | Philip Zimbardo (Foreword by)

Publication date: 07/07/2015

Intelligent Disobedience

Torture in Abu Ghraib prison. Corporate fraud. Falsified records at Veterans Administration hospitals. Teachers pressured to feed test answers to students. These scandals could have been prevented if, early on, people had said no to their higher-ups. In this timely new book, Ira Chaleff goes deeply into when and how to disobey inappropriate orders, reduce unacceptable risk, and find better ways to achieve legitimate goals.

The inspiration for the book, and its title, came from a concept used in guide dog training. Guide dogs must be able to recognize a command that would put their human and themselves at risk, effectively resist the command, and identify safer options for achieving the goal. This is precisely what Chaleff shows humans how to do.

He delves into the psychological dynamics of obedience, drawing in particular on what Stanley Milgram’s seminal Yale experiments—in which volunteers were induced to administer shocks to innocent people—teach us about how to reduce compliance with harmful orders. Using dozens of vivid examples of historical events and everyday situations, Chaleff offers advice on judging whether intelligent disobedience is called for, how to effectively express opposition, and how to create a culture where, rather than “just following orders,” citizens are educated and encouraged to think about whether those orders make sense.

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Overview

Torture in Abu Ghraib prison. Corporate fraud. Falsified records at Veterans Administration hospitals. Teachers pressured to feed test answers to students. These scandals could have been prevented if, early on, people had said no to their higher-ups. In this timely new book, Ira Chaleff goes deeply into when and how to disobey inappropriate orders, reduce unacceptable risk, and find better ways to achieve legitimate goals.

The inspiration for the book, and its title, came from a concept used in guide dog training. Guide dogs must be able to recognize a command that would put their human and themselves at risk, effectively resist the command, and identify safer options for achieving the goal. This is precisely what Chaleff shows humans how to do.

He delves into the psychological dynamics of obedience, drawing in particular on what Stanley Milgram’s seminal Yale experiments—in which volunteers were induced to administer shocks to innocent people—teach us about how to reduce compliance with harmful orders. Using dozens of vivid examples of historical events and everyday situations, Chaleff offers advice on judging whether intelligent disobedience is called for, how to effectively express opposition, and how to create a culture where, rather than “just following orders,” citizens are educated and encouraged to think about whether those orders make sense.

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Meet the Author & Other Product Contributors


Visit Author Page - Ira Chaleff

Ira Chaleff is the author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now in its third edition, and coeditor of The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations, part of the Warren Bennis Leadership Series. 

Ira has been named one of the “100 best minds on leadership” by Leadership Excellence magazine. He is the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community and a member of the ILA board of directors. He was cited in the Harvard Business Review as pioneer in the growing field of followership studies. Ira has watched with pride as the concept of followership has moved from obscurity to a topic of study in universities, conferences, and leadership development programs. He is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter on Courageous Followership and transforming hierarchical relationships into powerful partnerships. 

Ira is founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, which provides coaching, consulting, and facilitation to companies, associations, and agencies throughout the Washington, DC area. He is chairman emeritus of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation and has provided facilitation to nearly one hundred congressional offices to improve their service to constituents. He is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University, where Courageous Followership is part of the core curriculum in its professional management training for staff. Ira lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Washington, DC. His daughter, Lily Chaleff, created a beautiful mosaic at the entrance of the property to welcome visitors. Bears frequently disobey the no trespassing signs on the road and help keep his connection strong with the wonders of nature.



Foreword by Philip Zimbardo

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Table of Contents

Preface How I Learned about Intelligent Disobedience 

Foreword by Phil Zimbardo, Creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment 

Introduction Creating Cultures that Do the Right Thing 

  • Chapter One: The Pressure to Obey: What Would You Do? 
  • Chapter Two: Obedience and Disobedience: When Is Which Right? 
  • Chapter Three: Breaking the Habit: It Takes More than You Think 
  • Chapter Four: Finding Your Voice: Saying “No” So You Are Heard 
  • Chapter Five: Understanding the True Risks of Saying “Yes” 
  • Chapter Six: The Dynamics of Authority and Obedience 
  • Chapter Seven: Changing the Dynamics 
  • Chapter Eight: The Crucial Lessons from Guide Dog Training 
  • Chapter Nine: The Price of Teaching Obedience Too Well 
  • Chapter Ten: Teaching Intelligent Disobedience: Where Do the Lessons Begin? 
  • Chapter Eleven: Doing Right at Work: Saving Lives and Accomplishing Missions 1

Conclusion: Personal Accountability and Cultures that Honor Doing Right

Appendix: The Courageous Follower - A Model for Creating Powerful Partnerships

Notes

Acknowledgement 

Index

About the Author

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Excerpt

Nearly daily, we find stories in the media of individuals and whole departments who went along with programs or orders that came from higher levels in- or outside their organization that defy common sense, our values as a people, or the law of the land.

No segment of our culture is immune, from politics to sports, from federal agencies to religious institutions, from the education system to law enforcement, from health care to transportation, from food production and distribution to communications, from the military to financial services, from energy to social services.

You’ve read these stories or seen them in the media and, like me, wondered, How could they have done that? The question now is How do we change this?

Change will be achieved by teaching and rewarding the skills to differentiate between programs or orders that should be embraced and those that should be questioned, examined, and at times resisted. The capacity to do this should be an integral part of risk management strategies, which exist in all sectors.

If we distill Intelligent Disobedience down to a formula, it would look something like this:

1. Understand the mission of the organization or group, the goals of the activity of which you are a part, and the values that guide how to achieve those goals.

2. When you receive an order that does not seem appropriate to the mission, goals, and values, clarify the order as needed, then pause to further examine the problem with it, whether that involves its safety, effectiveness, cultural sensitivity, legality, morality, or common decency.

3. Make a conscious choice whether to comply with the order or to resist it and offer an acceptable alternative when there is one.

4. Assume personal accountability for your choice, recognizing that if you obey the order, you are still accountable regardless of who issued the order.

Formulas give us a sense of where we are going but are not sufficient to transform deeply seated cultural patterns. Transformation requires first understanding the powerful social mechanisms that produce and reward obedience, regardless of the merit or lack of merit in what is being obeyed. Then strategies and tools for overriding these mechanisms and retaining independence of thought and action are needed.

I did not start writing this book because I had the answers for how to do this. I began writing because I wanted to learn more about the answers. That requires a journey. When an author embarks on such a journey, in a sense the author is in service to the book. As the book unfolds, it insists the author look more deeply into the matters under investigation.

The author can report a symptom, but the book demands to know what is the underlying disease? The author can identify the disease and the book insists on knowing what caused it? What are its triggers? The author digs deeper and identifies causes for the disease and the book says, now what? Are there cures for this disease? If so, please share them with the reader. If not, how can we manage the disease until a cure is found? What are lines of investigation the reader and other researchers can follow to develop better ways of managing and ultimately curing the disease?

This book has taken me on such a journey. Professionally, I work as a consultant and a coach to adults who make our government agencies, armed services, corporations, professional service firms, nonprofit associations, and universities run. I have seen these organizations from the bottom and from the top. I know the pressures that exist at different levels and the difficult choices that have to be made about what is the right thing to do in different situations.

I could have written this book to solely address these professional environments. The reader would have recognized the book as a work about organizational behavior and ethical and operational choices. But if I left the book at that level, we would have been examining the symptoms or, at best, the disease. We would not have explored the causes of the condition and the remedies for those causes.

Let me put it this way: no executive, manager, front-line worker, administrator, principal or teacher, officer or foot soldier sprang fully formed from Zeus’s head. They—you—were raised in a family that was embedded in a culture, and each family, culture, and subculture within that culture developed ways of socializing its young, including you.

In contemporary society, socialization occurs most intensively in a formal school setting. If we include preschool and kindergarten, most of us spend nearly two hundred days a year for at least fourteen years in a system that is not only expected to educate us, but requires us to recognize and obey the authorities and rules of the system. When behavior shows up in our adult life at work, in the military, in our citizenship, it has been shaped to some degree by social forces that run deep. This book is going to take you diving below the surface of your working world into these formative conditions. Why?

There are at least three compelling reasons for you to accompany me on this journey. First, it is the intention of this book to help you as an individual alter some of the conditioning that is not serving you or your workplace well; it is difficult to do this without understanding the nature of the forces that are holding existing behaviors of obedience in place.

Second, if you are an executive, manager, supervisor, officer, minister, teacher, or anyone with others in your care, and you want to create an environment in which individuals hold themselves personally accountable for doing the right thing, you need to understand the underlying, shaping forces working against this in order to transform those forces.

Third, you are not only your professional role. You are a whole person. I am writing to the whole person. You may have, or expect to have children, or you may be an aunt or uncle, a mentor, a coach, or otherwise a steward of the next generation. How are those children being raised? Will the meta-messages they are getting in the current system equip them to be strong adults who can take difficult stands and to be strong citizens who can protect the values of our culture? You cannot “outsource” their moral development to the formal education process or even to the religious education process. You are part of their moral development, and you are their advocate in the system to which you entrust their development.

I am asking you to join me in an inquiry. We will:

♦ Look at the cultural forces that implicitly and explicitly value obedience over the higher level skill of discerning when it is and is not right to obey

♦ Glean scarce but useful lessons from education and training that support knowing when and how to intelligently disobey

♦ Examine critical research on reducing the pressure for individuals to conform and obey when they should not

♦ Look at cautionary examples of individuals who obeyed when they should not have and the price they paid for doing so

♦ Learn from uplifting examples of individuals who did the right thing when told to do the wrong thing

♦ Meet wise and accomplished leaders who have developed the capacity to do the right thing in those whom they serve

♦ Consider how the attributes of Intelligent Disobedience are central to a culture that values accountability, human dignity, and creative innovation

This book will flow among different levels of our lives—our work lives, our education lives, our home lives, back to our work lives. Understanding appropriate obedience and Intelligent Disobedience at each level will reinforce our capacity to create the right balance between these at the other levels. Throughout the journey, the image of the guide dog will accompany us, utterly devoted to obeying when doing so serves the common good and to disobeying when doing so prevents avoidable harm. We will look closely at the “secret sauce” that goes into guide dog training and distill what of this can be transferred to human development and cultural change.

There is one cautionary note I must make, though I find doing so painful. In the United States, and undoubtedly in other countries, the dominant culture is given more leeway to disobey than are others. As we have seen far too often in the United States, when people of color, and especially young men of color, even hesitate momentarily to obey, they can pay a very steep price at the hands of those with authority, especially when that authority is armed. I caution anyone reading this book to be mindful of unwritten cultural norms and factor those into your decisions on when to obey and when and how to intelligently disobey.

Although this book explores the social roots of obedience, it is primarily a book intended for application. I am not generally a fan of distilling complex dynamics to actionable bullet points. I have nevertheless done so at the end of each chapter to aid application. In many of the chapters, the research and lessons examined contain too many riches to easily retain in one reading. Rather than risk letting them be lost, I chose to risk oversimplifying them. The task falls to you to integrate these summaries meaningfully into your thinking and actions.

You now have a map for the journey you will be taking from the workplace to the school room to the dinner table, back to the workplace, and ultimately to the responsibilities of a free citizenry. Let’s start the inquiry by looking at a concrete example. It is critical to take this material out of the theoretical and the ideal into the hard realities of the world in which they play out—in other words into your world.

CHAPTER ONE

The Pressure to Obey: What Would You Do?

I WAS TEACHING A CLASS on courageous followership to a group of doctoral candidates at a Methodist university. Courageous followership is a way of being in relation to leaders. It requires giving those in leadership roles genuine support and building relationships with them that will allow those in follower roles to speak candidly when needed to prevent or correct leadership failures. It was a great class with lots of lively, engaged dialogue. During a break, one of the students came up to me and told a story that made a deep impression on me. This story happened twenty years prior to our conversation.

She had been a young nurse, fresh out of nursing school and assigned to a hospital emergency room. A cardiac patient was rushed in. After a quick assessment, the emergency room physician ordered her to administer the medication he judged the patient needed. She was stunned because she had been taught that this particular medication carried grave risks for a cardiac patient.

For a moment, put yourself in her shoes—in those days, probably uniform white shoes. This was an era when nearly all physicians were male, all nurses female, so the gender-based inequality of power was pronounced. The physician was older and more experienced, so this added to the perceived power differential. And, after all, he was a physician, with years more training than she had! Can you feel how many social forces were at work pushing her to snap to and do what she was told? Can you sense the time pressure to act one way or another with a cardiac patient’s life at stake?

She confided that she did not know where the needed courage came from to speak back to this authority figure. She told the doctor that she had been taught that particular medication could be fatal in this patient’s situation.

What was the doctor’s response? As is so often the case with someone in authority, he bristled at the questioning of his decision and in a raised voice, with a stern glare told her, “You just do it!”

Imagine yourself in that moment. You are in an emergency room. You chose nursing as a profession to help people. You want to be a competent, caring professional. If you act against your training and administer the medication and the patient dies, how are you going to feel? How will you face the patient’s family? How will you face a review board that examines actions that were taken? There is no “do-over.” But what if the doctor is right and you disobey? What if your refusal to act endangers the life you are trying to save? How will you live with that? And what will be the repercussions of disobedience on your career that you have just spent several years preparing for?

There’s no time to hesitate. What would you do?

Seriously, what would you do?

We don’t face such obvious life and death choices like this every day, but it is just such a choice that requires us to think about our accountability for obeying or disobeying, regardless of who gave the order. And it gives us a chance to mentally rehearse what it feels like to be under great pressure from an authority figure to do something we feel may be wrong, or even very wrong. When under pressure like this, our ability to make rational or moral calculations may freeze as we are flooded with stress hormones. Our ability to think outside the two choices—obey or disobey—may shut us off from productive alternative responses. The decision to question a forcefully given order usually must be made in a situation of high emotional stress. Will that excuse the choice you make? Will that allow you to fall back on “I was just following orders”?

If you’ve allowed yourself to feel what this young nurse must have been feeling, you realize that you’re at the point where you are going to need to take a deep breath, pump some oxygen to the brain, and quiet your fear sufficiently to make a principled decision.

So I invite you to actually do that now, to keep experiencing what she must have felt like. Take a deep breath. Take a moment. Think about alternatives to responding to the situation you suddenly find yourself in.

Now let’s return to the emergency room to see what the young nurse did. This is a paraphrase of what she told me:

“I hooked up the IV bag to the patient, and I injected the medication the doctor had ordered into the bag. Then I called the doctor over and told him the medication was ready to be administered. All that was needed was to open the valve on the IV bag, but that I couldn’t do it because it violated my training. He would need to open the valve himself.”

Do you see how she found a stance that was neither obeying nor disobeying, but stayed true to the principles she had been taught? Most of the groups to which I tell the story at this point let out low sounds of admiration for the way this newly minted professional found the composure to hold her ground. I certainly do. I am not at all sure that I would have had the presence of mind to generate the option she chose in that intense situation. That is the value of sharing stories. They mentally rehearse us for times when we find ourselves in similar, intense situations.

What was the outcome of this story?

The nurse’s requirement that the doctor himself open the valve, if he was indeed convinced that his order was correct, stopped him in his tracks. It was enough to get him to rethink the risks and the other options that were available. He changed his order to administer a different medication, which the nurse promptly did. The patient recovered fully.

What was going on here? Was this an incompetent doctor? Probably not. Just as we put ourselves in the nurse’s shoes, we need to put ourselves in the doctor’s shoes. He may have been doing his residency at the hospital, a requirement for all physicians. Hospital residencies are infamous for the brutally long hours they require, particularly in the period this occurred. It could be that he was sleep deprived and that his own mental processes were operating at a reduced level. Emergency rooms can be particularly hectic places where the patient load suddenly spikes as several ambulances arrive at once, or violently ill patients begin retching or having seizures in the waiting area. Maybe the doctor himself had a touch of illness he was working over.

None of these conjectures are to excuse bad decisions; they are offered to humanize the authority figure. Whether a doctor, factory manager, fast-food supervisor, school principal, financial executive, or athletic coach, sometimes those in authority are not at their best, yet the responsibilities of their position require them to act. We must be able to see them as both having legitimate authority and human frailty, and at times be prepared to question them, correct them, or even disobey them. Because we can’t say “we were just following orders.”

Remember that nurse. There is one great role model, whatever your profession.

A few initial lessons we can glean from our engagement with this story:

1. The need for Intelligent Disobedience can arise suddenly and demand a high order of poise to respond appropriately within the compressed time the situation demands.

2. We must give our own perceptions, training, and values equal validity to the perspectives of those in authority when weighing the right course of action.

3. There are often options other than “obey” or “disobey” that can lead to better outcomes.

4. If we take a deep breath and pause to think, we may be able to offer alternative creative responses that satisfy the authority and better meet the need of the situation.

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Endorsements

“Reading this remarkable book has given me new hope for humanity.”
from the foreword by Philip G. Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment and author of The Lucifer Effect

“Intelligent disobedience is a core competency. This book provides an overlooked and essential element of ethical decision making and right action.”
John A. Allison, retired Chairman and CEO, BB&T Corporation

“All of us have the responsibility to stand up for doing the right thing. Intelligent Disobedience offers the tools for doing this.”
Beatrice Edwards, Executive Director, Government Accountability Project

“Intelligent Disobedience provides practical advice for the workplace and has profound implications for preparing students for democratic citizenship.”
Robert Bravo, Area Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District

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