Gone are the days where “yes men” used to flourish and conflicts were to be avoided at all costs. Today, the key to meteoric rise and success in the corporate world doesn’t just lie in doing what you are asked to; it is also to know when to put your foot down and accomplish things on your terms & conditions – atleast some of them, if not all. In this context, it is crucial to understand how to handle disagreements at workplace. Before proceeding further, let us clarify one fact – saying no or handling disagreement is not the same as handling conflict – it may be seen as a precursor to conflict or a potential-conflict situation. More than peers, the challenge is to say “NO” to your boss – perhaps, the fact that the BOSS figure has a direct impact on your progress has a dampening effect on how much you would want to disagree, or “disobey” in the first place. Herein comes the phenomenon known as Intelligent Disobedience, the guiding light of WHEN and HOW to disagree with your boss. Hereafter, the principles of Intelligent Disobedience will be known as “ID principles” for short, to help navigate through difficult situations.

When to follow “Intelligent Disobedience”?

Before anything else, make sure that you pick your battles carefully and consciously; it goes without saying that each time you disobey, you are creating a dent in your image. You can think of ID as a currency – it is better to use it in a limited, infrequent manner for maximum impact.

When the lines between personal and professional start getting blurry. Let us take a typical example here – your country head’s son has a badminton tournament in your location. You perceive an implicit expectation that you should make the arrangements for his son, including hotel, provisions etc. and then, help them move around once they are there. In this situation, the ID principles come into play. You can share with your immediate supervisor how you think this will not fall into your job purview and ask for permission to excuse yourself from this task.

Intelligent Disobedience works in another kind of scenario – where there is a question of ethics. Often, while working, the lines become grey regarding the ethics of a task or a set of activities. Taking a stand in such cases might not be enough; how to take such a stand without damaging future growth prospects is the larger question.

When it comes to routine activities, you may apply ID principles a little more freely, given the fact that the stakes are a little lower. Case in point, you have 3 projects and your boss’ peer (not your direct reporting boss) wants you to take up one more and deliver it at an unrealistic timeline. At this point, you can either burden yourself unreasonably and say yes to everything or apply ID principles and negotiate a deadline which is feasible for the kind of work that is expected.

How to apply principles of “Intelligent Disobedience”?

It goes without saying that in any form of disobedience – respect, acknowledgment, courteousness – are very crucial – even if it means taking a step back or delaying a favourable outcome for you in the short term.

You have to keep your larger perception within the organisation and short-term/long-term consequence of you in mind while applying ID principles. That way you will always have a handle on how you want things to turn out for yourself. For example, if you want yourself to be seen as a non-nonsense guy, then personal requests, like the one in the example earlier, will warrant the use of ID principles.

A lot of times, potential conflict situations arise because of information asymmetry i.e. the boss may not have some of the information that you have. It is always better to bring your boss up-to-speed as to the reason and a lot of times, you will see that your boss might take a step back understanding the need of the hour.



  1. At no point are you allowed to make this a power struggle. Whatever the decision is, make sure you communicate the final decision is to be taken by the Boss himself/herself.
  2. Do not make the disagreement person vs. person. It is always better if it is idea vs. idea or decision vs. decision.
  3. Avoid expressing open disagreements in emotionally charged situations or public forums; puts your boss in a defensive position, even if s/he might have agreed with your point, the timing of such a situation can lead to adverse impact.
  4. It is better not to apply ID principles in situations viz. doing activities beyond your Job Description, handling stretch targets etc.
  5. Applying ID principles at the last moment and leaving your supervisor in the lurch is not the ideal way to handle things. Try to convey your disagreement well-in-advance so that your replacement may be added.


To put things into context, saying NO might be the difference between you being a paper pusher and you emerging as the next leader for the current leadership of the organisation. Intelligent Disobedience not only strengthens your individual cause, it also portrays you as an individual who has his/her own thought process and is not afraid to stand up for what s/he believes in. Following ID principles may well be the differentiator you are looking for. Intelligent Disobedience, once mastered, can be a cornerstone for the employee handling skills of the new age leader and an indicator of the kind of culture that is to be built and fostered in an organisation.