An Intelligent Disobedience Failure Story

By Bob McGannon on February 26, 2015

The use of Intelligent Disobedience is not guaranteed. Successful intelligent disobedience requires doing your homework and understanding the cultures and regulations of the business in which you are working. It also often means you should not “go it alone.” Here is a story of an intelligent disobedience failure from which we all can learn…

A manager with “positive intent” for his business violated the standard approval process before spending money with a vendor to obtain some IT hardware. He did this because it was close to the end of year holidays, and key senior management personnel were absent. He had email confirmations from the leaders affirming his intention to buy the hardware, but all of the signatures on purchase agreements required by his company were not obtained. If he bought the hardware before the year end, the business would save a considerable amount of money. So, thinking the emails were sufficient to allow him to act, he executed a purchase agreement to obtain the hardware.

Once the senior leaders returned from their holidays, they learned of the purchase that was made in violation of process and counseled the offending manager. Although they recognized his positive intent, he got his wrist slapped and was told not to do this again.

About 6 months later, a critical business area urgently needed some technical support, so – again with positive intent – the manager reacted quickly and arranged for specialist technical support to attend to the matter. He figured it would be ok to get the purchase authorization signatures later. What he actually got “later” was removed from his job for a repeat violation of spending authorization procedures.

You might pass judgment on this, saying it was not a good move to dismiss the well intended manager. That is for each of us to decide on our own. The point to be learned here is this…it is not “intelligent” disobedience when you poke the bull in a sensitive spot, twice, without help! Here is what I mean by this statement:

  • In the first instance, the manager was doing what he thought best, not expecting the management team to react by counseling him. He “poked the bull” in a sensitive spot and it threatened to charge, despite the fact he was trying to help.
  • In the second instance, he also thought he was doing what was right for the business. However, he was “poking the bull” in the SAME sensitive spot” and expected a different result!

Now, I am too enthusiastic about using intelligent disobedience to simply say he should not have “poked the bull” the second time. My concern is that he DID IT ALONE. Before taking that action, he should have learned from his first experience and rallied to get some specific senior management support before violating the procurement process a second time. Instead, he went it alone; he poked the bull…and the bull charged…predictably.

It can be ok to take a “second run” at a sensitive area, the key to “intelligent” disobedience is to rally support if you can, or escalate the sensitivity of the business issue you are trying to tackle with the “powers that be.” Before taking an action that stretches or violates the rules.

Bob McGannon

Director at Intelligent Disobedience Leadership

Got a question about this article?

Find me on Twitter & LinkedIn or send me an email.