In a conversation with a large state HMO, one of the senior leaders expressed frustration with the low patient satisfaction scores and the even lower employee engagement figures.

When asked what actions were in place to address these serious issues, the leader responded that committees had been formed but they first had to agree on their respective charters, and draw up parameters for their work and then all had to be approved by the more senior managers.

In the meanwhile, “Rome burns.” (For those not familiar with the phrase, it refers to what Nero supposedly did while his city was literally going up in flames: he played a musical instrument. Although the story is now a matter of legend, the phrase means, “to stand by and do little or nothing.”)

Today’s 24/7, quick-paced environment will not stand still for plodding hierarchies. Action is the antidote for anxiety. Patients are anxious. Employees are anxious.

Adaptability means blowing up the protocol of many layers to get moving. It means creating on-the-ground small coalitions who can quickly find out what is festering and then act!

Actually, I can make a good guess what are the causes of the low scores: the hierarchy has accepted negative attitudes, tolerated bullying, overlooked poor performance, and ignored the critical conversations needed to craft a culture of caring and engagement.

How can I be so bold? Because if there were a culture of ownership and engagement, both scores would be higher. Everyone would jump in where needed – much like our new World Cup Women’s Soccer team. Think about it. Those women had ownership when the ball was presented to them. They had to make split-second decisions. There were no committees studying the situation. There was no vote taken to make sure everyone agreed with the next move. To be sure, each player knew the respective strength (talent) on the team and the goal was plenty clear. (Listen up leaders. How clear are your organization’s goals? Do you know the strengths of your respective employees?)

And here’s one more critical component. Even if the coach HAD called a play, everything shifts when set in motion. In fact, intelligent disobedience rules the day.

“Intelligent disobedience.” That’s a phrase introduced by my colleague Ira Chaleff and the title of his latest book: Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong. For years, Chaleff has studied and written about courageous followers. This new book, Intelligent Disobedience, takes his work deeper into another side of followership: what to do when as a follower you feel that you should NOT follow your leader’s orders.

According to Chaleff, “Intelligent Disobedience is about finding the healthy balance for living in a system with rules and authorities while maintaining our own responsibility for the actions we take.” The concept becomes clearer when he uses the analogy of training a seeing eye dog.

This is heady and hard stuff. Chaleff raises the ante on the term “adaptability,” which is one of the first critical resiliency skills. With intelligent disobedience, we’re not only urged to find multiple options to a situation, but now there is a morality and ethic behind those options. Sherron Watkins at Enron practiced intelligent disobedience. Yet we can’t help but wonder how many more Enron-type companies have slipped under the radar screen. A conspiracy of silence and allegiance to hierarchy thwarts adaptability and intelligent disobedience. It can also stifle innovation, product development and employee engagement.

Steps to expand the resiliency skill of adaptability and intelligent disobedience:

  1. Buy Chaleff’s book and give it to your team, making it a topic for discussion and insight on an ongoing basis.
  2. Create a “sacred cows are hamburger” program, encouraging people to clearly identify why something no longer works and what, if anything, could replace it. Remember: the code word here is “intelligent.”
  3. Celebrate and recognize people who raise the thought-provoking questions.
  4. Insist on transparency in decisions – unless SEC rulings or privacy laws prohibit it.
  5. Remove the artificial barrier of hierarchy and encourage senior leaders to engage in both casual and substantive conversations.

Remember, in our wired and connected world, titles mean little and one’s actions become the subject of instant social media murmurings. Longevity as an enterprise requires a downplaying of ego and an increase of adaptability. Personal reputation requires the courage to stand for what is right.

About Eileen McDargh

Since founding McDargh Communications & The Resiliency Group Eileen McDargh has helped organizations and individuals transform the life of their business and the business of their life through conversations that matter and connections that count.

Her programs are content rich, interactive, provocative and playful—even downright hilarious. She draws upon practical business know-how, life's experiences and years of consulting to major national and international organizations that have ranged from global pharmaceuticals to the US Armed Forces, from health care associations to religious institutions. She is the author of six books, including Gifts from the Mountain: Simple Truths for Life's Complexities ,a Benjamin Franklin Gold Award winner. A training film based on this book was awarded the Silver Telly, the highest award for commercial productions. Her latest book was written to help everyone who is stretched too thin by competing demands My Get Up & Go Got Up & Went. As a business author and commentator, she’s appeared on network news, on radio programs and in business journals and in major metropolitan newspapers .


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