What a Guide Dog Can Tell Us About Good Leadership

Key points

  • A culture that encourages too much obedience leads to followers going along, even when they know the course is wrong.
  • Leaders need to encourage intelligent disobedience in team members, making them feel free to speak up.
  • Followers need courage and encouragement, to help prevent a team from continuing on a course of disaster.

Encouraging followers to speak up when something is wrong is an important key to avoiding disaster.

In his book, Intelligent Disobedience, Ira Chaleff begins with the example of a guide dog for the blind. A guide dog is trained to keep his owner safe, regardless of the owner’s command. For instance, if the owner is about to cross a street when it is unsafe, the dog is trained to disobey. An analogy in the work world might be: A member of a flight crew speaks up when the captain is about to make a dangerous mistake.

In traditional organizational structures, we look to leaders to provide direction and make decisions and there is a strong tendency to follow along. However, teams can get into a pattern of simply going along-following the leader ‘s decision or direction, even when the individual knows that the decision or course of action is wrong. Encouraging followers to engage in intelligent disobedience is an advantage.

How do you foster intelligent disobedience in followers?

Encourage Employee Voice. Leaders should create a climate of openness, where employees feel free to speak up. As one CEO said, “we have a culture where even the lowest-ranking member of the organization can come up to me and tell me if they think I’m doing something wrong.”

Train Followers to Be Appropriately Assertive. All too often, employees are unsure how to go about communicating their concerns upward in the chain of command. Teaching members to be assertive appropriately can help; some situations may call for direct action, while others may call for more subtle and tactful action.

Realize the Importance of Team Support. Research clearly shows that it is extremely hard for a lone individual to go against the grain (Asch, 1956). Letting members know that they can seek support from colleagues or from superiors in their effort to change the course, can help employees develop the courage to speak up.

Learn to Accept Criticism. From the leader’s perspective, it is important to recognize and accept the fact that intelligent disobedience is necessary to avoid potential problems. Chaleff says that CEOs have shared with him: “What keeps me up at night is that my people aren’t telling me what I need to hear.”

What to Do?

Consider how you can encourage transparency and open communication in your team or organizations. What sorts of safeguards are, or could be, put in place to help recognize problems before they happen?

Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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Ron Riggio

Ron Riggio

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College; Author; Consultant