… even if you obey, what is your responsibility to actively support? You can undermine a decision or initiative more subtly… with your attitude, or by not pursuing it vigorously, or by not giving it sufficient visibility, etc., while still obeying in a strict sense.
— Mike, commenting on my previous I Disagree. Now What? post.
In an earlier post titled I Disagree. Now What? I related the lesson that we have a right to disagree with directives and action plans and such, but we don’t have a right to disobey; in other words we don’t have the right to not take the appropriate action required of us.
We’ll now turn our attention to commenter Mike’s twist on the I Disagree. Now What? post, exploring it’s “murky middle ground ” (his words) …
The original post is, well, not murky! It is straightforward — disagree, fine; don’t disobey. As if “obey” is black and white. Obey, or not. Disagree, but don’t disobey. I learned back then that I was allowed to disagree with what is planned, but I oughtn’t disobey; I should act consistent with what is planned. I should implement; I should execute.
But Mike finds murky middle ground when considering a range of behaviors that might technically be considered obeying but would quite clearly be insufficient to support the success of the directive, and might even, intentional or otherwise, undermine or sabotage the effort.
He’s right, of course. Sometimes obeying is not enough.
So, there goes the lesson?
Sometimes, obeying is not enough.
Seems to me to start navigating our way out of the murky middle we need to map our respective spans of influence.
If your work is execution oriented — with little or no influence on others — obeying when disagreeing is probably an acceptable way forward. Such was my role when I learned the disagree/disobey lesson. I was an individual contributor with specialist expertise, and I was executing. Compliance was at least minimally acceptable.
But there are many among us, including me (present day) that influence others as we work. No getting around it. Some of us — Mike? — have significant influence. Leaders have significant influence. Their influence can either be positive or negative. (I, personally, don’t think it is ever neutral.)
For leaders, with respect to “obeying” the bar is raised significantly. It is not enough to comply. Compliance is not the same thing as commitment. Leaders must, in Mike’s words, actively support. They must be committed to the course of action.
Leaders do what the organization needs them to do. Of course, the same qualifiers for the disagree/disobey dynamic apply here — safety; professional ethics; societal mores; legality. Short of those, they must not only comply… they must not only obey … they must support.
Actively support. Visibly support.
They must lead.
The disagreed-upon course of action will be proven right, or wrong, in time. In fact, in my experience, it is usually adjusted or altered when early warning signs are in evidence. The system will work, once the system notices it isn’t…
If the disagreed-upon course of action fails because leaders — and, considering their span of influence, their people — “obey” without a commitment to its success, then how do we diagnose the failure? Did the system not work because its people were not allowing it to?
Leaders are no different than all of us with respect to the first half of the lesson. They certainly do have a right to disagree.
They are similar to us as we move to the second half — they do not have a right to disobey.
But their obeying is way different; they have a responsibility to actively support.
I will let your comments suggest the leadership dilemma we now find ourselves in; for, with leading, there is always murky ground to navigate through…