Obedience erodes passion

March 14, 2014

"What do you mean: that train trip is too expensive?"

Mike had just left the hustle and bustle of the bistro in The Hague to answer Laura's telephone call. Laura was an administrative staff worker at the company where Mike was a representative.

"No, Mike. A standard ticket costs € 50, a business ticket costs €130. The CEO said that we have to cut back on costs. On every level, and that means yours too"

This did not sit well with Mike. During the past month and a half, he had worked 60 hours per week to enthuse clients about the new software. The business ticket was no luxury; it simply meant a peaceful trip by train, allowing him to continue to work on the quotation for the client in London on his iPad.

Financial anorexia

Mike is experiencing what so many others are experiencing. The financial diet culture is high on the agenda. The pathology is as simple as it is devastating. Organization X is in financial difficulty. CEO Y is cleaning up the mess and has ordered a strict financial censorship. Cost minimization imbues every section of the obedient administration. Operational excellence passes review as one of the growth pillars in virtually every corporate representation.

For the sake of clarity: I certainly do not oppose operational excellence. But there is no free lunch. Many managers try to simultaneously bring about product leadership, client intimacy and operational excellence. These three aspects cannot be realized at the same time(1).

Managers then proceed to create a light-version of operational excellence, in which they do not go to the absolute cost limit, but a cost limit that is as low as possible. Following in these footsteps, obedience is still imposed and rewarded.

A virtue?

But is obedience actually healthy? In The Future of Management, Gary Hamel suggests that the contribution of human competencies to creating value in an organization is divided as follows(2):

He adds:
"Having said that, I do not wish to suggest that obedience is worthless. Any company in which no one observes the rules would quickly drop to anarchy. What I do mean to say is that obedient employees do not contribute to the distinguishing ability of the company"

Gary Hamel has never avoided overdoing things. That has come back like a boomerang before - consider, for example, his limitless admiration for Enron. And he is exaggerating here as well. He nevertheless put the emphasis on an important aspect: without some anarchy, there is no progress. If your company is filled with puppets, then you create a puppet show with the same old story over and over. Scott Berkun demonstrated this before in the amazing The Myths of Innovation(3):

"The management philosophy for managing an assembly line can never create an innovation such as the assembly line"

Obedience is the mantra of repetition. It is the arch-enemy of renewal. Obedience creates a dangerous flywheel: uncertain times increase the willingness to standardize deviating behavior as dangerous. The price pressure increases without renewal, leading to further savings in costs. Tom Peters pointed this out before: "You can't shrink your way to greatness".


Many employees consider obedience the norm, and passion as deviating behavior. I think it is the other way around. There is nothing extreme about passion. Proudly chasing after a desire is the basis of every successful organization.

Why don't 'we brand the obedience? After all, obedience is often fueled by fainthearted listlessness, the kind of listlessness that is characteristic of some public services. In offices of that kind, the highlight between 9 and 5 is the afternoon visit to the cafeteria. If you know what is generally served in a Dutch cafeteria, then you can immediately form an opinion of the rest of the day. To these employees, obeying procedures is a way to keep clients at bay and to get through the day undisturbed. And so the detachment of a few has given the public service a bad reputation all over the world.

But sometimes the driving force behind obedience is precisely an obsession to stick to the rules. I whole-heartedly curse the security checks at the airport, for example, but I also don't want a Taliban fan on my flight. Here, room for freedom is extremely limited, although I believe that the best security checks are manned with employees who are not completely predictable for travelers with ill intentions. The Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment, milestones in the social sciences, painfully demonstrated the dangers of this form of obedience.(4)

Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out during a speech for students at the Duke University (USA) : "You should rarely follow the rules. I think that you should write the rules".(5) This statement should be taken with an ample pinch of salt. After all, some describe Apple as the 'ultimate top-down organization'(6). Let's just say that an organization of total anarchy is unproductive, but an organization of total obedience is equally unproductive. And the tolerance for the latter version is often much too high to begin with. And the costs of opportunity are to match.

Why do we stick to obedience anyway? The results of obedience are evident straight away, while the costs of opportunity do not manifest themselves until in the long-term. The results of passion, on the other hand, are very often situated in the long-term, whereas the costs can be observed immediately.


Mike arrived in London three weeks later. The train trip had been a hell. His immediate superior too had stuck to his guns and had insisted that he cut back on costs. A new account of Mike's, valued at € 170,000 went unnoticed. The costs of the restaurant where the deal was clinched all the more.
On arriving in his hotel room, he left the London file unopened in his bag. He opened the laptop and explored LinkedIn, the of the dissatisfied employee.


1: Porter M. Competitive strategy. New York : Free Press, 1980. Treacy M. & Wiersema F. The discipline of market leaders. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1995.
2: Hamel G. with Breen B. The future of management. Boston MA : Harvard Business School Press, 2007.
3: Berkun S. The myths of innovation. O'Reilly Media : Sebastopol CA, 2012 (expanded edition).
4: Milgram S. "Behavioral study of obedience," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, p. 371 - 378 (October 1963). Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). "Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison," International Journal of Criminology & Penology, vol. 1, 69-97 (1973). De Haney et al. study, which is often described as the Stanford prison experiment, provided inspiration for a film. You will find the original film material on:
5: The clip can be found on:

6: Lashinsky A. Inside Apple. How America's most admired - and secretive - company really works. New York : Business Plus, 2012, p. 118.

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