Just Following Orders

April 25th, 2011

While on trial for crimes they committed, Nazi soldiers argued they were not responsible for their actions because they were following orders from commanders. They didn’t decide to do what they did—they didn’t want to—they were just carrying out what their officer instructed them to do, and if they didn’t fulfill them, they too would be shot.

That’s a difficult moral question to untangle for soldiers in heavily hierarchical militaries, where lower-rung officers, and especially enlisted soldiers, have very little discretion afforded to them.

This argument, though, is used to justify a person’s actions in other areas, too. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card, an easy way to suspend responsibility. Hey, I didn’t create these rules, I’m just operating within them. It’s not my fault.

It’s especially seductive in business, because we can justify what we’re doing—something that doesn’t feel like the right idea but our boss told us to so we damn well better do what they said—without taking personal responsibility for it. We can claim that we don’t really believe in it, that we think it might be wrong, but we just have no choice.

The founder of Baidu (China’s most popular search engine), Robin Li, provides a nice example of this reasoning in justifying censoring his search engine’s results:

“It’s a cost issue,” he says, noting the drain in resources it would take to implement such a system. “I thought, if the servers are in Hong Kong, then it’s not subject to Chinese law and we can save this kind of cost.” In the light of morning, he realized that as a Chinese citizen, he had no choice, and from that point he implemented the government’s request without complaint. “It’s not an issue to me,” he says. “It’s just Chinese law. I’m not in politics. I’m not in a position to judge what’s right and wrong.”

- From Steven Levy’s book In the Plex (affiliate link).

That’s how easy it is to dismiss responsibility for your actions: they make the decisions, so I’m not responsible for them. I’m not in a position to judge what’s right and wrong.

But he is, and we all are, too. Your company has to stand for something, and if you’re not taking a position on something, it means it’s standing for whatever you’re trying to disavow responsibility for.

Most of us are not making decisions of that magnitude—whether to agree to the government’s censorship laws—but we make that same kind of decision nonetheless.

If all you do is follow orders, you’re not contributing anything.

If all you do is carry out what your boss instructed you to do—not adding anything to it—you’re a replaceable cog.

If all you do is “what the customer has demanded”—e.g., build a smartphone with a little larger buttons so they’re easier to press, rather than build the touch-screen mobile computer customers didn’t know they wanted until they saw it—you’re replaceable.

Don’t just follow orders. Don’t be afraid to take responsibility. Stand for something.

You might fail. But you might also succeed more than you knew possible.