All posts by ibrahimdani

Intelligent Disobedience

The (true) story goes, a young nurse, fresh out of nursing school, was assigned to a hospital emergency room.  A cardiac patient was rushed in.  After a quick assessment, the experienced emergency room doctor ordered the new nurse to administer the medication he judged the patient needed.  The nurse was stunned because she had been taught that this particular medication carried grave risks for a cardiac patient.  What would you do if you were this freshly graduated nurse and the doctor was older with years of experience?

Well, the nurse told the doctor that she has been taught that particular medication could be fatal in this patient’s situation.  The doctor was bristled at the questioning of his decision and in a raised voice and stern glare told the nurse “You just do it!”.

What would you do? Seriously?  Imagine yourself as the nurse.  If you administer the medication and the patient dies, how are you going to feel?  How will you face the patient’s family?  How will your future be?  But what if the doctor was right?  What if your refusal to act endangers the life you are trying to save?  How will you live with that?  There is no time to hesitate.  Seriously, what would you do?  Obey or disobey?  If something went wrong, will you say, “I was just following orders”?

The nurse quickly thought of an alternative other than either obey or disobey.  She hooked up the IV bag to the patient, injected the medication the doctor had ordered into the bag, and called the doctor over and told him that the medication is ready.  All that was needed was to open the valve on the IV bag.  The nurse said that she couldn’t do it because it violated her training.  The doctor would need to open the valve himself.  This was enough to get the doctor to rethink the risks and the other options that were available.  The doctor changed his order to administer a different medication.  The nurse promptly did, and the patient recovered fully.

Was the doctor incompetent? Probably not.  He may have been working for long hours, or the emergency room was loaded with patients, or any other reason.  This is not the point here.  The point is that, many times, there is a stance that is neither obeying nor disobeying.  At times, those in authority may not be at their best, yet the responsibilities of their position require them to act.  We must be able to see them as both having legitimate authority and human frailty, and at times be prepared to question them, correct them, or even disobey them.  We can’t say “we were just following orders.”

When weighing the right course of action, we must give our own perceptions, training, and values equal validity to the perspectives of those in authority.  We should not constraint ourselves with the two options of obey or disobey.  There are often other options that can lead to better outcomes.  Just take a deep breath and pause to think, and you may be able to offer creative responses that better meet the need of the situation. Remember, if you obey an order, you are still accountable regardless of who issued the order.

This nurse story and other stories are included in the remarkable book Intelligent Disobedience – Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong, by Ira Chaleff.  The author argues that the danger lies in teaching obedience too well, so the habit of unquestioning obedience is carried into adulthood.  From politics to sports, from financial institutions to religious instructions, from education system to law enforcement, there are stories of individuals and whole departments who went along with programs or orders that came from higher levels that defy common sense or our values as people.

Ira Chaleff summarises Intelligent Disobedience as follows: when you receive an order that does not seem appropriate to the mission, goals, and values, clarify the order and examine it whether it involves any problems with safety, effectiveness, cultural sensitivity, or legality; and make a conscious decision whether to comply with the order or resist it and offer an alternative when there is one.

Replenish your smarts – unlearn and relearn

In a rapidly changing world, experience can become a curse while inexperience can be a blessing. Experience becomes habits and dogmas trapping us in old ways of thinking, knowing and doing; while inexperience frees us to learn, improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories about experienced drivers who repeatedly failed their driving tests after moving to a new country, particularly if they were driving on the other side of the road, while new or novice drivers pass their driving tests more often. This appears to be counterintuitive, but Liz Wiseman, in her insightful book Rookie Smarts, states that according to studies and researches “inexperience can work to your advantage: It can spark a dazzling performance and help you compete with, if not surpass, even the most talented, experienced players.”

Wiseman explains that experience creates dangerous blind spots. People form habits out of experience, and with habits, our brain stops working. We become desensitised to the world around us, we stop seeking feedback and we stop exploring new domains and paths. Similarly, Jonah Sachs, in his thought-provoking book Unsafe Thinking cited a research concluding that while expertise can make us enormously efficient at playing an established game, it can also make us slower to realise when the game has changed and less able to respond to those changes. For example, imagine that the rules or the size of the Tennis court has changed, certainly there will be new names who will defeat the top seeded international Tennis players.

Sachs admits that it feels good to be an expert. It is a mark of accomplishment, intelligence and hard work. It brings us esteem and makes us feel needed. That’s all good. The problem starts when the expertise leads us, unwittingly, down the path of overconfidence. When we are overconfident of what we know, our identities and our egos become attached to the unique knowledge networks that confirms our beliefs. This will lead us to defend our expertise from any challenges, whether from new information that runs contrary to our accumulated knowledge or from people questioning our views.

In addition, we generally tend to credit ourselves with having more expertise than we do. Many studies have documented this “better-than-average” phenomenon. For example, 93 percent of US drivers rate themselves as above average behind the wheel. Even drivers currently laid up in the hospital for accidents they themselves had caused were similarly found to overestimate their abilities.

The trio of overconfidence in our expertise, our conformity network ego, and the “better-than-average” phenomenon, all of this do limit and frame our thinking and actions, both in the social and professional worlds. This limitation constrains us in a certain path that celebrates what we believe in and disregards (or worse, devalues) everything else. The endpoint of such a path is closed-mindedness.

Hit the refresh button

To break away from the path of closed-mindedness we need to hit the refresh button in our thoughts and beliefs and adopt a ‘keep learning’ mindset: continuously explore new thoughts and opportunities. Adopting a ‘keep learning’ mindset does not mean we ditch the experiences we built along the way. On the contrary, we need to build the skill of knowing when to play the role of the experienced veteran and when to act as inexperienced novice and seek new ideas and knowledge. That is, we do need the experience to decide whether to see the world through the eyes of the expert or the beginner. We need to know when it is time to hit the refresh button to stop, unlearn and relearn.

The good news is that ‘keep learning’ mindset is something that can be learned. ‘Keep learning’ mindset can be built by being curious, humble and deliberate. Start by embracing curiosity and inquiry. Challenge your own thoughts, knowledge, traditions and convictions. Build a belief that what you don’t know is more interesting than what you know – it is probably right most of the times. Continuously seek and explore. Think outward, build new networks and learn from people around you.

A curious mind avoids pre-judgement traps and makes you ready to learn. This is where humility comes in where you will seek guidance and remain open to correction without regard for expertise or position. This allows the development of coachability and teachability. A humble person with a non-judgemental state of mind is a coachable person, ready to learn, contemplate and understand everyone and everything else.

To make the best out of your ‘keep learning’ mindset you have to deliberately be curious and humble. You have to approach this with a great deal of intentionality and conviction that you want to learn, unlearn and relearn. Don’t just wait until things happen. You need to deliberately become a perpetual learner.

Replenish your smarts

When the world is changing fast, you want people who can free themselves from the past, mobilise the expertise of each other, and forge ahead into new territory. In other words, you want people who can learn and continuously replenish their smarts with insatiable curiosity, a humility that makes them lifelong students, and deliberately adopt an open mindset of continuous learning. Or as Pocahontas said:

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.