How do you navigate questionable leadership? When faced with a professional request that you find challenging, when do you comply and when do you advocate for yourself?

In his article The Compliance Trap: The Snare of Short-Term Results, Eric Torrence shared a leadership struggle he faces at home and work. He suggested that forcing compliance can be a knee-jerk reaction for leaders, but that isn’t his ultimate goal. “I want to inspire enthusiasm, empowerment, and the excitement that happens when people come together to accomplish something good.”

His post got me thinking of a friend’s recent experience and how uncomfortable being forced into blind compliance felt to her.

Advocate or Comply?

Like much of the country, July brought a heatwave to Chicago. High temperatures and humidity meant that there were days when folks were encouraged to stay inside and take precautions if they ventured out.

As a tour guide, this can be a complicated situation. Dangerous heat puts a damper on business. I work with an organization that makes a sizable portion of its income taking people on long walks outside. And July is peak tour season. A steamy weather forecast presents an ethical dilemma.

Do you risk guests’ and tour guide’s safety by continuing tours in dangerous heat? Or do you jeopardize the bottom line and, perhaps, ruffle customer’s feathers and cancel tours? What is the “right” thing to do? It isn’t an easy decision to make and there are many factors, logistical and financial, that influence it.

Ultimately, the company made the decision to send tours out as scheduled. They did not explain to tour guides why they reached that conclusion. They only instructed us to do all we could to ensure guests’ safety and comfort while still delivering an exceptional experience. Knowing that some were concerned, they further clarified that if guides didn’t take our scheduled tours out, it would be considered a “no show.” That meant we would face disciplinary measures.

By handling the situation this way, they seemed to be requiring tour guides to comply blindly.

Needless to say, among tour guides, this was not a popular decision. Many of our guides are of retirement age and some have health issues. They are the segment of the population that would be in the most peril if temperatures and humidity rose as high as it was expected to rise.

One of my friends (she is in her 70s and has asthma) consulted with her physician. Based on that discussion, she decided that regardless of the company’s decision, she intended to advocate for her health and safety. She informed the company, with as much notice as possible, that she would not be giving her scheduled tour. Compliance with their decision was not in her best interest.

Best for me? Best for Business?

Whether a sole proprietor, CEO, middle manager, or worker bee, we’re all accountable to someone or something. It might be stockholders, the government, a client, or a manager. In business, we are all being influenced and led by the expectations or needs of others. So how do we navigate questionable requests? How do we determine if a situation calls for compliance or if it’s a moment to advocate for our needs? When must we make decisions contrary to what we’re being asked?

It’s best to navigate these decisions on a case-by-case basis, but there are a few conditions which can help us make a choice.

Our Health or Well-Being

When asked to do something or deliver something dangerous to our health (like my tour guide friend was), it’s always best to advocate for ourselves. It is our responsibility to protect our body, mind, and spirit. From time to time, many of us choose business over our health. However, it isn’t a way of life that is sustainable long term.

Our Moral Compass

When we’re being asked to do something that feels unethical or morally compromising, it is always best to advocate for ourselves. There is no amount of money or professional success that can buy back our integrity. And it seems once we make our first moral compromise, the second and third are even easier to stomach.

Dealing with the Fallout

Of course, refusing to comply isn’t easy. It doesn’t come without consequences. Perhaps we’ll face disciplinary measures (as my tour guide friend is). Maybe we lose a client or find ourselves in an uncomfortable professional relationship for a time. Deciding to advocate for ourselves rather than merely complying can be professionally risky.

We are ultimately left to decide if our health and clean conscious are worth facing the inevitable consequences. More often than not, I bet they are.

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash


How do you navigate questionable leadership? What helps you decide when it's time to comply or when it's time to advocate for yourself?