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Leaders should make space for intelligent disobedience at work

A culture that supports smart insubordination can minimize its capacity for fatally bad decisions

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Pure-bred dogs are broadly divided into three categories based on their purpose. First, companion dogs, bred primarily for companionship. Second, work canines, like sniffers, guard dogs, search and rescue and military combat dogs. But the highest calibre of dogs are those which are specifically taught not to be 100% obedient. As a matter of fact, they are trained to practice what is called “intelligent disobedience". These are seeing-eye dogs which guide the blind and therefore need to be trained to disobey orders that could endanger their masters—say, if the master insists on crossing a road when a silent EV is hurtling their way.

All cultures teach children to obey authority and yet it is also essential to educate them when not to obey. A parent instructing her small daughter not to leave the room under any circumstance, or to obey an uncle under all circumstances will endanger the child in those exceptional situations when she must intelligently disobey the order to save herself from a fire or an inappropriate action by an adult.

Organizations too must understand the importance of cultivating a culture of intelligent disobedience. Especially those accustomed to an authoritative style of leadership, like the military, or hierarchical and deferential companies. While the armed forces understandably enforce obedience ruthlessly, they still leave a provision for junior officers to disobey an unlawful order, and, in extreme circumstances, relieve the superior officer of his command—by force if necessary. But of course, like all organizational behaviours, it is not legal provisions or company policies that encourage intelligent disobedience. Instead, it is a culture of psychological safety which empowers a subordinate to disobey an instruction that endangers the organization or public interest.

On 6 August 1997, Korean Airlines flight 801 from Seoul was descending into Guam. Bad weather had reduced visibility, forcing an instrument landing. Captain Yong Park, a 42-year veteran and decorated pilot, began his approach to a runway that was not in service, mistaking an irrelevant signal to be a landing beacon. Despite the co-pilot and flight engineer pointing out that the airport was not visible, the beacon signal was incorrect and the descent was too steep, Park pressed on and crashed the plane five kilometres short of the runway, killing 229 passengers.

The investigation found many lacunae but what proved fatal was the fact that the first officer and flight engineer did not challenge Park even though they knew he was wrong. Had they protested vociferously and taken over the controls, they could have saved all. A Korean culture of strict deference to hierarchy prevented them from disobeying what they knew was a fatally bad judgement.

However, despite such rare instances, the aviation industry has attained remarkable levels of safety precisely because of an environment where ‘bad’ orders get questioned routinely. For instance, hundreds of ‘near miss’ reports are filed every day by pilots and flight crews all over the world which contribute to the process of improving flight safety continually. Confirmatory checklists cross verify commands between the flight crew to ensure there is no miscommunication. And while aircraft manufacturers do their best to ensure flight safety and redundancies of critical systems, there is tacit humility in admitting that despite all of this, there could be a crash and that even in failure there would be learning. That is why a black box is installed in every plane. There is thus psychological safety in a culture that makes it clear that even sophisticated technology could fail or seasoned pilots could be wrong and it is okay to question an incorrect instruction.

Compare this with, say, the healthcare industry, where doctors are treated as stars and it is usually sacrilege for a junior nurse to question the instruction of a senior doctor. Despite clear indications of doctor errors, fatalities are usually attributed to statistical failure rates for procedures. Doctors purportedly never err, so there is no question of near-miss reports filed. Beyond informal conversations, there is no structured learning from errors. That is probably why over 225,000 deaths are estimated every year in the US alone due to medical errors.

Intelligent disobedience is not impertinent insubordination. Instead, it is a process of rigour and an early warning radar to ensure that bad decisions are nipped in the bud. Leaders can create such a culture by narrating instances when they themselves have had near misses and celebrating the interception of decisions that violate a higher purpose or core values. However, creating an environment in which admission of errors is considered healthy needs secure and mature leaders who are not ruffled or threatened by dissent. Leaders who appreciate that clarity of vision and decisiveness of orders must be mated with the counsel of subordinates, else they could be headed for a catastrophic crash. Importantly, subordinates aware of looming dangers must realize that their fear of immediate repercussions of disobedience pale in comparison with the consequences of supporting bad orders. Not just for their organization, but also them personally. While Korean Airlines survived the landing-error crash, its subservient flight crew didn’t.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of ‘Everyman’s War’.

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Updated: 21 Feb 2023, 12:18 AM IST
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