We’re taught from a young age that we should obey authority and do what adults tell us to do. Those lessons usually work in our favor, however there are times when a child – and an adult – should say “no” to the ones in charge. Our guest has studied this issue and has come up with situations where refusing to do something is the right thing, and he discusses when and how to say “no” effectively and for the benefit of the individual and others.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Ira Chaleff, founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, Washington, D.C., author of the book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing right when what you’re told to do is wrong.

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Intelligent Disobedience: When it’s okay to say “no”

Marty Peterson: As children, we all learn that we must obey our parents and certain other authority figures in our lives. It’s a survival strategy that’s been around since humans lived in caves and, for the most part, it has served us well. We incorporate these lessons into our lives as adults too, and end up obeying those in authority – often without question. Ira Chaleff says that this isn’t always a good idea. Chaleff is the founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates in Washington, D.C. He discovered during a lecture that it’s sometimes a good idea to disobey authority in order to save it and others affected by the boss’s decisions. It all came about when he was teaching students the value of being a good follower, and said it was okay for them to sometimes stand up to authority. A woman in the class said she had an example of that “under the desk” — a guide dog for the blind that she was training.

Ira Chaleff: For the first 16 months of the dog’s life, she was teaching it to obey all the commands it would need to know. She said then, it needed to go to a higher level trainer who would teach it intelligent disobedience, and I said “What’s that?” And she explained that sometimes the person who’s blind will give an order to go forward when the dog sees a danger that would be very problematic if it complied with the order, and it has to know when not to obey and how not to obey. And if it can’t do that, it can’t be a guide dog. And I thought what a wonderful metaphor for how do we raise our children, how do we develop professionals who the know the difference between when to obey and when not to obey.

Peterson: Chaleff turned that idea into his book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing right when what you’re told to do is wrong. He says that some of us learn the lessons of obedience a little too well. When the time comes to stand up to the boss, we give in because we’re afraid of negative repercussions if we don’t. It’s a tough situation to be in, but Chaleff says that we can take some of the fear out of the experience if we know how to say no. Take the situation a young nurse found herself in when she was told to give a patient a medication she thought was dangerous.

Chaleff:   The nurse was given an order to administer an IV drug to a cardiac patient, and her training had told her that that could be very dangerous, might even kill the patient. But the doctor said to do it. Well, she pushed back, she said “I don’t think that’s the right thing,” and he said “You just do it.” And many of us will find ourselves in situations where authority is telling us to just do it. And she had the kind of presence to, instead, say “Doctor, I’ve set up the IV, I’ve put in the medication you’re prescribing, I still don’t feel it’s right. If you are sure it’s right, you will need to open the valve.” And that was enough to get him to stop, reflect, change a prescription to a much safer prescription.

Peterson: It takes time, preparation and practice to learn to say no gracefully, yet firmly. It also takes the ability to think ahead and consider all of the potential consequences of your action – or in-action. Chaleff has a story about an accountant with the now defunct WorldCom Corporation who found out what happens when you don’t think ahead to what could happen if you just go along.

Chaleff: Betty Vinson, she’s a very poignant example because when she was told to fudge the numbers, she pushed back and she said, “Well, you know, that doesn’t conform to accounting practices.” And she was told well, it’s just for this month. Just work with us. And she had a good job, she didn’t want to lose it. But she went home, she was really worried about it and she actually wrote out a letter of resignation. She decided it was more important to keep her accounting license, her credentials, her integrity. But then, unfortunately, she had second thoughts. She ripped up the letter and she went ahead and cooked the books. And then the next month they came and asked her to do it again, and the next, and the next. So Betty Vinson, she thought she was being self-preserving, if you will, by going along. Instead, she wound up with a jail sentence.

Peterson: What could she have done to save her job? What is the right way to say no in those circumstances?

Chaleff: So if I were her, I hope what I would have been able to do was say, “Sir” or “Ma’am,” who’s ever giving me the order, “this will get all of us in a lot of difficulty. I cannot do this. If you feel strongly enough that this is the right thing to do, then you will need to do it. I cannot go along with this.”

Peterson: Chaleff says that to say “I was just following orders” is not usually a good excuse, unless your life or the lives or health of your loved ones are in danger. One of the biggest and most rigid organizations in the world – the U.S. military – has even acknowledged that just because an order comes from above, that doesn’t mean it should be followed all the time.

Chaleff: But what’s happening these days in the military is this concept of “command intent.” Rather than command telling you exactly what to do, the military are moving to a doctrine where command says, “Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. You figure out the best way to do it, the best way to accomplish the goal with minimized casualties to your troops.” And that’s a much more professional way to deal with these kinds of historically, very authoritarian organizations.

Peterson: In any case where you don’t think your boss or someone else in authority is making a good decision, and it’s not an emergency, Chaleff says there is a good way to speak up and question the decision.

Chaleff: We do have to be diplomatic. One of the best ways is to help the positional leader understand how, if you do what they’re asking you to do, it could come back to hurt them as well as others. And if you can help the leader understand how not only is it the right thing to do it differently than they’re being asked, but it’s also in their self-interest to reconsider and find a better way to do this. In the long run, you may build a relationship where they come to really value your constructive dissent.

Peterson: Chaleff says leaders also need to be more understanding and diplomatic when a subordinate takes issue with a decision the boss has made.

Chaleff: Any of us can get defensive when we’re questioned. But a smart person in authority will really take the time to distinguish between “Am I just getting obstructionism, is the person just acting out against authority or are they trying to tell us something that we really need to pay attention to?” And unless there’s an absolute dire emergency, the authority figure would do well to stop and say, “Why are you questioning that? Help me understand the data that you see from your level that is questioning the order I’m giving from the data I see at my level.” And this works all the way up and down in all walks of life. You could be a supermarket clerk and the manager of your section is telling you to do something and you realize no, the expiration dates are too close here. That isn’t right and we will create problems for ourselves. We need people at all levels to feel safe enough to speak up so that authority figures can reconsider what they’re asking.

Peterson: Chaleff says we need to begin teaching children when it’s okay to say no to an authority figure or other adult – such as when someone tells them to do something illegal or immoral.

Chaleff: What I’m hoping happens here with the book is that we recognize that building the capacity for intelligent disobedience starts very early, in the home and in the pre-school and school. And I hope that we see more parents having these conversations with each other. It’s not easy to do when you’re stressed out, your fuse is short, you’re very tempted to say, “You just do what I say,” but we really then wind up building a foundation that doesn’t serve our children well in the future and I’m hoping we can change that conversation.

Peterson: Chaleff has lectured many groups on leadership skills, but also on “followership” skills – something we don’t think about too much in our working lives. Being a courageous follower requires not only being able to say no to authority when necessary, but an entire repertoire of skills…

Chaleff: The courage to assume responsibility. In other words, I don’t wait around for orders. Once I understand what we’re trying to achieve, I act and I take responsibility for my actions. Another is the courage to be supportive. Maybe if I were the leader I would be doing it differently. But she’s the leader and as long as her ideas have a reasonable chance of success and aren’t violating core values, I’m going to support her. And then the fourth is the courage to participate in transformation. What does that mean? That means, hey, if a relationship with your leader isn’t going so well, guess what? It’s a two-way street. So rather than just pointing the finger at him or her, look at yourself and say, “What is it that I’m doing that’s contributing to this relationship not being as good as it could. I have control over that more than the other’s behavior. And the last is the courage to take a moral stance. If what you’re being asked to do really is crossing a line, then you have a range of options to make sure that you don’t become complicit with an unethical, illegal order.

Peterson: Of course, when you challenge authority figures, there’s no guarantee that it will change their minds or that there will be no negative repercussions to your life or career. But Chaleff says you’ll likely have more success if you say “no” in an intelligent and reasoned way. To find out how, you can pick up Ira Chaleff’s book, Intelligent Disobedience in stores and online. You can also visit his website at intelligentdisobedience.net. You can also visit our site at Viewpointsonline.net for more information about all of our guests. You’ll find archives of past programs there and on i-Tunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.