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The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively


Insubordination gets a bad reputation – perhaps deservedly so.  However, there are times when insubordination is what we want.  The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively is designed for those times.  We want people to be insubordinate when they’re instructed to do something that’s morally wrong.

In The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo shares his experience with how people will follow along even when given bad instructions.  (If you believe the flap, this even extends to Zimbardo’s instructions to the “guards” in the Stanford Prison Experiment.)  In Moral Disengagement, Albert Bandura shares his lifetime of work learning why people do what they do and how people can disengage their moral imperatives through perceived authority, the breakdown of tasks, and a lack of awareness.  Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains that morality is based on six pillars: the foundations of morality.  One of those is care/harm, and while overriding this moral foundation is possible, it’s thankfully not always easy.

We want insubordination in the face of the immoral and amoral.  However, how do we get it?

Principled Insubordination

Todd Kashdan defines principled insubordination as insubordination designed to improve society with a minimal amount of secondary harm.  This is an important recognition that many of the situations we face are wicked problems.  That is to say, they’re complex systems that are difficult to predict the results of the change and difficult to even define in a way that everyone would agree.

The formula he uses multiplies the degree of deviance from the status quo by the combination of authenticity and contribution – all divided by social pressure.  Authenticity comes from deeply held convictions, contribution is the degree to which it creates social value, and social pressure is the degree to which the system tries to maintain the status quo.

Take the Free Throw Shot

What if I told you that I could increase the accuracy of every basketball player’s free throws?  It doesn’t matter whether the person being helped is an amateur or a professional.  All it takes it to do the “granny” throw – underhanded.  Statistics back up my assertion.  It’s a better way to shoot free throws.  However, almost no one does it.  Why?  The answer is in the perception of the approach.  It’s not seen as cool – and the social pressure to use the overhand approach is too much to break away from.

Sometimes, it’s not the evidence that keeps people using one approach or another.  Sometimes, the point isn’t efficacy.  Sometimes, the point is the appearance.  This makes it difficult to be appropriately disruptive, because even if the data supports your point of view, it can be that people will continue the old, less effective behavior simply because it looks better.

Consider how we put catsup in refrigerators at home but have no qualms about it being on the table at a restaurant or how in the United States we refrigerate our eggs while they’re left out in many other parts of the world.  It would feel wrong to leave the eggs out – even if we know that there is no reason to refrigerate them.  (Don’t do this with eggs purchased in US supermarkets, because the protective cuticle has been washed away.  But if you’re getting your own eggs from your own chickens, it’s safe.)

Old Comfortable Shoes

Most people have the pair of shoes that they know are past their prime.  They’ve served us well but now they’re struggling because of loose stitching, worn soles, or other minor calamities that clearly call for their retirement.  However, if they were comfortable in the past, we’re more likely to hold on to them – whether we wear them or not.  We talk of having them repaired – or we simply ignore their deficiencies.  Their nostalgic value is just too large.

People hold on to their existing, long-standing, nostalgic ways of doing things because of the psychological comfort it offers.  We know what to expect, and we know how to predict the results.  We’re aware that new approaches may lead to better results – or they may lead to worse results, and the chances of a worse outcome are generally just not worth the effort.

Necessary but Not Sufficient

Amy Edmondson has made a lot out of Google’s Project Aristotle, which sought to understand what makes project teams successful – and what prevents teams from success.  The single factor that seemed to be the answer was the idea of psychological safety – that is, the ability to share your thoughts without retribution.  In my review of Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, I was critical of the idea that you could create such an organization, because people would bring their own fears in from home.  In my review of Find Your Courage, I hinted at a reason that The Art of Insubordination drives home.  Studies after Project Aristotle revealed that there was another important ingredient and that is principled insubordination.

Said differently, people needed the courage to do what they felt was right – despite their fear.  Reducing fear by increasing psychological safety was a good start, but it still required that people be willing to stand up for what they felt was important – and that required people have the internal sense of safety as well as the tools to be able to stand up effectively.

It Takes Time

You turn water on for the shower and jump in.  It’s freezing cold despite the fact you have it set to 100% hot.  You jump out frustrated and wondering what’s wrong with your hot-water heater – or do you?  Nearly everyone is used to the fact that the hot water takes a moment to get from the hot-water heater to the shower.  We instinctively reach our hands in and turn the water on before jumping in for this very reason. However, for some reason we expect that just because we’ve shared a better model or some heresy about the current state that people should instantly change.

Heliocentrism – that the Earth revolves around the Sun – first was proposed in the 5th century B.C. by Greek philosophers Philolaus and Hicetas.  Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century B.C. codified what we’d call the heliocentric model today.  Nicholas of Cusa started arguing for heliocentrism by 1444.  Leonardo da Vinci observed that “the Sun does not move” before his death in 1519, in direct contrast to the prevailing geocentric model.  Heliocentrism didn’t gain much ground until Copernicus’ publications in 1543.  Galileo Galilei observed the model to be correct in 1610 and was sentenced to house arrest after he made the statements publicly.  It’d take another century and a half before heliocentrism and the Copernican system would be accepted.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of being disruptive is the process of waiting for opinions to change, accepting the condemnation of a world that doesn’t understand.  Throughout history, we’ve seen the time frame for important discoveries’ acceptance measured in centuries and decades.  Semmelweis discovered germs in 1847 when the introduction of handwashing began to save lives of mothers and babies.  Though the work of others and the discovery of the specific “particles” that Semmelweis was suggesting, we finally began seeing acceptance of germ theory around the early 1900s.

Consistently Flexible

Much like the Stockdale Paradox, the best way to move the change forward is to balance to opposing ideas.  (See Good to Great for more on the Stockdale Paradox.)  If we want to be successful in winning over the majority, we must be consistent in our explanations and perspectives – without seeming overly inflexible.  We must be open to new ideas and revisions while maintaining the core principles of our beliefs.  This is substantially easier to say than to do.

One tool for maintaining consistency while being open is to start with curiosity.  By remaining curious about the objections, problems, and considerations of what we’re proposing, we show interest, which is helpful in and of itself.  It also allows us to see how small changes might make the suggestions better.

Be an Insider – If You Can

People accept more from insiders than outsiders.  The tricky part is how to be perceived as an insider.  Simple changes like using inclusive pronouns – we vs. I – are a good start, but, more broadly, learning to speak in the language that’s more consistent with the group is helpful as well.  Learning the lexicon in use helps people know that you at least want to be a part of their group – even if you can’t ever be fully in the group.

There’s a problem when people adapt to become different with each group that they’re with.  That’s not what we’re proposing here.  We’re not proposing that you change who you are – just how you communicate.  We use subtle clues to indicate in and out groups with people, so by changing language to match in-group language, we can often subtly change how people perceive us.

Curiosity Not Fear

Any sort of change to the status quo has the potential for negative consequences and therefore fear.  While there are opportunities in change, they’re often lost in the fear.  Our goal for effective change is in creating a sense of curiosity rather than fear.  Creating curiosity can be done in a variety of ways.

Perhaps the simplest approach to generating curiosity is to state the proposal in an odd way.  This often triggers a desire for the person to ensure that they understand what you’re saying, and that curiosity helps them become a co-creator in the new reality rather than a passive recipient of new information – and that creates better reception.

Rebel Lives Can Suck

Just because it’s hard doesn’t make it wrong – but it doesn’t make it right either.  The life of a rebel is hard.  Unlike a paranoid person who believes the world is out to get them, the life of the rebel can often be that people are against you – even if they’re not out to get you.

The lives of explorers are risky.  Some will die.  Some will fail.  Some will see their own people turn against them.  The lives of explorers aren’t the easy path, but many people throughout the course of history have chosen this path either for fame or because of the call towards the unknown is too strong.

For the explorer hacking their way through the forest, it’s slow going and difficult.  For those of us decades or centuries later who are zooming along the roads that are paved along the same paths the explorers traveled, we’re making faster and easier progress.  It’s definitely easier to go with the flow to proceed upon the paved path and the leave the exploring to others.

In the end, we can see the explorers as heroic risk takers – something that we hope that others see when we extend ourselves into the rebel lives.  While they may respect or even revere our efforts, that doesn’t mean that they’ll like us.  Just like we’re unlikely to know the scout or surveyor who laid out the roads that we travel, people traveling the well-worn path aren’t likely to understand those who pave the roads they drive on.

Playing the Long Game

It was a marshmallow that sang the siren song of delayed gratification.  In The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischell explained how his experiment with preschoolers led to an awareness that delayed gratification could be a life skill that would give them better long-term life prospects.  These children were able to instinctively play the long game when they were offered two marshmallows if they’d just wait for Mischell or his colleagues to return to the room.

Albert Einstein described compound interest as the eighth wonder of the world.  He knew that if you invested a little bit of money and allowed the interest to compound over time, it would become a large sum.  In short, a willingness to accept the long game can be immensely rewarding.  If you’re able to save some rather than spending it, you’ll end up with many times as much as you started with.

We find the world littered with examples of how if we’re able to play the long game, we’ll end up ahead.  That’s what we’re doing when we’re being a rebel.  We’re intentionally working on long-term benefits at the expense of our short-term enjoyment.

Hills to Die On

It’s the World Series of Poker, and you’ve been struggling to draw the cards that you need.  You manage to pull three aces, but there’s the possibility that someone else might have drawn an ace-high straight.  You’ve got four choices.  You can fold assuming the other player got the straight, you can stand pat just letting the pot be driven by others, you can push the pot yourself, or you can push everything you’ve got in.  If you go all-in, you’re either going to win a big pot or you’re going to go home.  The question is – should you go all-in or not?

I’ve not given you enough information to know from the real probabilities about the right answer.  You’ll have to make a gut call.  This is the situation we find ourselves in all the time.  We’ve got insufficient information and an important decision to make.  In life and business, it may not be worth the risk.

The other form of challenges that we face are those for which we have a strong belief or moral value attached.  In these cases, despite the odds, we may find that we need to go all-in and make this a hill to die on – even if it becomes the reason that we’re asked to leave the organization or group.

Forming a Coalition

At the heart of The Art of Insubordination is an unsolvable problem.  That is the problem of forming a coalition.  While there are many works that try to address this problem – they’re incapable of solving it completely.  Digital Habitats speaks about creating digital spaces where communities can form.  Team Genius speaks of the power of teams.  Buy-In offers tips for working those who would resist your changes.

Dating sites compete for people offering low/no-cost membership, research-backed algorithms, and flashy websites and apps.  Yet many people remain single.  Despite being on one or more of the applications, they find themselves unable to find that special person they want to spend the rest of their lives with.  (Statistically, it won’t likely be the rest of their life as Anatomy of Love and Divorce point out.)

Certainly, building a coalition of people willing to rally behind a disruptive change isn’t as difficult as finding a life partner, but the challenge remains the same.  It’s not as easy as it might appear or as people would like it to be.  It’s hard standing alone, so we need others willing to stand with us – but finding them doesn’t have a formula, process, or even a plan.

Vulnerability First, Trust Second

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  The cheater’s answer is the egg, since reptiles are born from eggs, and they predate the chicken.  However, the core question is, in a cycle that feeds back on itself, where do you start?  The answer is wherever you can.

You can’t start building trust and vulnerability by demanding trust of the other party.  Instead, you’ve got to start with the pieces that you can control.  You start by trusting others knowing that trust is reciprocal.  You become vulnerable, because this leads both to their vulnerability and increasing levels of trust.  You have the power to trust others and to be vulnerable – not (directly) control their trust in you.  (For more on the cycle, see Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited.)

False Testimony, Evidence, and Morality

What would you do if you called someone out for their immoral and unethical behavior and their result was to attack you?  This isn’t a rare case.  This is what happens when unethical people are attacked.  Rather than admitting they were wrong, they seek to defend their behaviors.  Change or Die exposes us to the ego’s defenses.  We learned through Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) how people will avoid taking responsibility.  Mastering Logical Fallacies walks through the techniques that people are likely to use to seem logical and rational and at the same time really be basely attacking a person.

Whether you follow Rebels at Work, seek to be one of the Originals, or believe that you should have better Range, there is support for being counter-cultural and an awareness that so many people will resist the change because it makes them uncomfortable.

If you’re going to chose the path of being a disruptor, you might want to do a bit of study to get good at The Art of Insubordination.