Article: Practicing creative disobedience

Life @ Work

Practicing creative disobedience

Disobedience and divergence can exist and manifest in respectful ways. How can a leader create a culture of such purposeful intelligent disobedience?
Practicing creative disobedience

Are you ‘disobedience robust’? Do you indulge in acts of principled disobedience to authority, with the goal of benefitting the society? Are you nonviolently and ethically challenging norms, rules, or laws for the greater good? Well then, you must apply for the MIT Media lab’s “Disobedience Award”, a path breaking award introduced by MIT in 2016. The philosophy behind the award was articulated clearly by Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Labs when he said “You don’t change the world by doing what you’re told”.

Well, corporates too are encouraging employees for challenging hackneyed processes and policies to challenge the status quo. And why not! Disobedience is a rudimentary need for unconstrained imaginative inquiry and creativity.

The best leaders in the world intuitively know that they need candid feedback, razor sharp criticism, insightful analysis and diverse ideas even more than they need compliance. But not all rules are bad. Processes, systems and procedures exist for a good reason. However, with change in contexts and situations, we need to keep re-interpreting or re-engineering those to keep pace with the ‘here and now’. So what exactly is Creative disobedience? Its one’s ability to ethically challenge, influence, pushback and recommend changes based on objectivity, rationale or even intuition, so as to benefit the organization and the stakeholder in question. This of course calls for lot of courage, conviction, resilience and emotional intelligence especially if you are not at the top.

The concept in fact comes from guide dog training. Guide dogs are firstly taught to ‘obey’ commands for a year and half, post which they are taught to ‘disobey’ so that they develop a knack of sensing risks for himself and the owner. In organizations too, we have to ‘disobey’ sometimes to ‘save the businesses’! If leaders want to fuel innovation, they must not just tolerate but also encourage and empower individuals to be challenge ideas. They have to realize that disobedience and divergence can exist and be manifested in respectful ways. We are of course not encouraging people to be rebels without a cause but only allowing them to invest in acts that benefit everyone. So how can a leader create a culture of such purposeful intelligent disobedience?

Creating norms on breaking norms

It helps to establish regular forums/meets where leaders elicit opinions, ideas and perspectives on controversial decisions in a structured way. In such forums, people mayn’t speak up initially as they don’t want to get into the bad books of the leaders. If any kind of reward or recognition is attached to such ideation, people would speak up more!

Put a number to it

The more we quantify performance goals, the better. So why not add a certain weightage to goals that center around ‘disobedience’, ‘risk appetite’ or ‘experimentation’. For instance, an employee could be encouraged to work on a benchmarking study in the Industry to compare a policy he/she thinks is not acceptable and present data to justify his/her stand.

Shuffle it up

If teams are constantly interchanged, jobs rotated and roles changed, fresh perspectives start pouring in. In new assignments, people are more enthused to overtly question and challenge the philosophy behind the processes and practices.

Appreciate courage and compliance equally

While every innovator will tell you that they have gotten success by breaking rules, that behavior is not reinforced by any kind of recognition/reward. Compliance is constantly rewarded, but not courage. Reward individuals who display the courage to experiment, fail and persevere to work on ideas they strongly believe in. Appreciate failures and document the learning from it!

Assert and let people assert

Managing group dynamics is a crucial aspect of ‘speaking up’. Most people decide to shut up because they don’t want to seem aggressive, rude or arrogant.  It’s important to make everyone see the need to voice their opinions assertively, and develop their ability to do so. One must agree that views on creative disobedience are controversial and there is divergence in the acceptance of it. But it is finding a lot of voice to support it!

While deliberate rule-breaking might have dividing perspectives, as a leader, one has to decide whether it worth risking rebellion for innovation.

And for the others who are yet to be at the top, would you want to take the bull by the horns or succumb to the self-defeating rules? 

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Topics: Life @ Work, Learning & Development

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