When Breaking the Rules is the Intelligent Thing to Do

Posted on July 30, 2021

You have promised your manager you would follow the rules, and you have spent time understanding your business processes. So when exactly is breaking those promises and disobeying the rules or disregarding those processes the intelligent thing to do? Here are a few characteristics of intelligently disobedient acts:

Intelligently disobedient acts are performed to achieve better business outcomes. If the action you are contemplating is to achieve a business outcome that you  believe is necessary, but that perception is not shared by your management team, it will probably not be considered “intelligent.” In this case, the appropriate intelligently disobedient act would be to engage your management team in conversations to change their views on business success, rather than try to achieve outcomes that would not be appreciated.

Second, if your proposed action represents opposition to widely accepted norms or corporate culture, you will want to perform “homework” to validate your views. Make sure you have your facts laid out. That being said, it should be noted that we at Intelligent Disobedience Leadership also encourage ID activities based on intuition.  However, you should present those ideas as having their basis on intuition and share the activities you propose to take to validate your intuitive thought.

The third guide for intelligent acts of ID is understanding the implications of

  1. not engaging in an act of ID,
  2. discomfort that may surface in your organization should you act, and
  3. the resistance that may surface as a result of any process or decision-making you circumvent.

In short, understand any power shifts that may result from your proposed act of ID. Once you understand these implications, you can engage in stakeholder management activities to ensure your ID action will be viewed as an intelligent one.

The last common type of intelligent action is one that may not be evaluated as intelligent by others. However, it may be the most significant form of intelligent disobedience. This is when an action is taken to protect your integrity or the integrity of your business. There are spectacular instances where these acts were not performed; the VW fuel emissions testing and the Wells Fargo unwanted account creation are examples. Undoubtedly, there was significant pressure to keep these activities hidden. In the end, the hardship for many people involved in these scandals was not avoided; instead, it was amplified and only temporarily postponed. Confirming the intelligence of taking action to preserve one’s integrity must come from within yourself, in the confidence of knowing you preserved what is “right” from your own personal moral standpoint.

Before considering the intelligence of a potential act of ID, be aware that what constitutes an act of ID in one environment, maybe commonplace in another. While bending or breaking a rule in one business to achieve a better outcome may be considered intelligent in one environment, it could flag the opposite reaction in another. For example, care should be given when considering an act of intelligent disobedience in highly regulated businesses.  Discussing your potential ID action with a trusted colleague is a great way to “test the waters” as access if your ID act is intelligent.