You don’t have to do what you’re told.
There are few types of organisation where ‘obedience’ appropriately describes the compliance of an employee with a leader’s or manager’s wishes. Most organisations aren’t armies, and managers don’t issue ‘orders’. But even in military organisations, where unquestioning, rapid obedience is drummed into recruits until it becomes an instinct, obedience is required only to lawful orders. ‘I was only following orders,’ is no longer an excuse when war crimes are committed, or if an order is otherwise unlawful.
In softer organisations the relationship between employee and ‘leader’ is more overtly consensual. The sanctions for disobedience don’t include the death penalty. There’s usually a written contract that describes the employee’s obligations towards his or her employer, and vice versa, usually with reference to a job description which limits the scope of compliance with a leader’s wishes.
There’s also much that isn’t written down. Pragmatism and convention require that a leader and a follower should behave reasonably, openly, and respectfully towards each other. When there’s inappropriate behaviour sanctions might be applied: an employee might give notice, or request a transfer; a leader might fire his or her employee, or arrange that he or she be transferred, or might resign.
The implied contractual conditions between a follower and a leader are that:
- A leader’s requests are legal and ethical
- A leader’s requests generally fall within the scope of an employee’s job description or, if not, are mutually agreed
- A leader communicates his or her ideas clearly
- A leader discusses others’ objections openly and reasonably
- A leader explains his decisions reasonably and clearly, including the reasons for setting objections aside
A good leader must persuade his or her followers that the objectives he or she puts forward, as well as the means put forward to achieve them, are reasonable, including the proposed schedule of tasks and responsibilities. Ideally a leader will foster a consensus amongst his or her followers, adjusting the vision and the plan to accommodate constructive criticism. The art of management is always to persuade others to want what you want, rather than to issue orders, so that the whole team can work towards the goals you’ve set with as much enthusiasm as you do. This may require passionate persuasion (for example that the ‘impossible’ is really possible), or adjustment of the plan.
But if you’re a follower, what can you do if:
- Your leader asks you to do something outside the scope of your contract,
- Your leader asks you to do something that’s unethical or illegal,
- Your leader is an unreasonable and disrespectful dictator,
- You disagree either with your leader’s vision or the means or schedule he or she has put forward to achieve it?
The worst thing you can do is to sulk, whether you choose to comply with your leader’s wishes or not. Sulking falls under the fashionable description of ‘passive aggression’, a wide range of unattractive ways of behaving, all of them unlikely to achieve their objectives, and all of them involving abnegation of responsibility. They say ‘I’m not happy with something,’ but they don’t say what, and they don’t put forward a solution.
I used to sulk, well into my teenage years, but I rarely find it useful now that I’m and adult, and I see now that it’s a pointless form of opposition, since no one can reasonably be expected to understand what you’re sulking about or what you really want. It’s so unattractive that there’s a danger that the target of your sulking might very well cease to care.
Communication is essential, and plain, unthreatening, understanding communication is the best. The worst option is immediately to adopt an adversarial position. More often than not, if you raise objections cheerfully and clearly, your leader’s position will shift, with no damage done to your relationship. Make it easy for a leader to make a compromise.
On the other hand, uncommunicative non-compliance won’t gain you friends and won’t advance your cause or your reputation. You must either adopt a position of communicative, constructive, critical, influential compliance, or withdraw entirely from the situation. If your leader has understood your objections, considered them, but rejected your views, you still have an obligation to comply, and comply constructively, working in good faith with your peers to achieve your leader’s objectives, whatever your views. You may very well end up with an opportunity to say ‘I told you so!’ but that’s a phrase that, even if you turn out to be right, you should use cautiously and sympathetically.
Not my job!
If you’re asked to do something that’s outside the scope of your employment then be clear in your refusal, but not hostile. Draw a line without opening a gulf of hostility or embarrassment.
‘Bring me a coffee, would you?’
Well, you could say, ‘Not my job! Do it yourself.’
Better to say, ‘I’d love to, but will you mind if I sometimes ask you to make one for me?’
Mutual kindness might ensue.
The illegal and the unethical
When it comes to the illegal or the unethical, you must allow, at least initially, that there’s some kind of misunderstanding. You should avoid immediate confrontation, if possible, allowing your leader to back down.
‘Are you sure you want me to do that? Isn’t it illegal, or wrong?’
But if your leader insists, you must simply say no, without hostility. And if his or her demands continue you must then say, as unthreateningly as possible that you would need to discuss the issue with your leader’s leader.
Of course, life can be more complicated than that. Office politics are just as astonishingly complex as international politics.
If your leader is an unreasonable and disrespectful dictator, you must have the courage to say so. Sulking and other forms of passive non-compliance will get you nowhere. But you must counter unreason and disrespect with exemplary reason and respect.
Better to say, ‘I know that you want me to do this, but surely it’s reasonable that you should explain to me why, and listen to my objections. If you want me to do a good job you need me on your side, doing what you want me to do willingly, not resentfully.’
If you make no headway with this kind of approach, then you must go above your leader’s head, or politely resign.
If you simply disagree with your leader’s vision or the means he or she puts forward for their achievement, then the only thing you can do is to register (and document) your disagreement, and then, as long as what is required is legal, ethical and falls within the scope of your employment, you must comply. It may turn out that you were wrong. It may turn out that your leader was wrong. Both of you may have believed what you believed for good reasons. Above all avoid resentful compliance, or non-compliance or behaviour designed to undermine your leader’s plan. If the situation is not to your taste, you must transfer or resign.
The good follower
A good follower must be honest, open, and communicative, should seek influence and discuss objections in good faith, should expect a reasonable hearing, but must finally, comply with a leader’s requirements as long as they are reasonably and respectfully expressed. As a follower you won’t bear ultimate responsibility for the failure of a plan as long as you’ve worked in good faith to achieve it. That is the compensation for following. But if, as with most followers, you have an interest in success, you must develop techniques of persuasion and constructive criticism and if you can you must ‘manage’ your leaders to make the right decisions.
See also The Art of Following