Are Authority Figures Living Rent-Free In Your Head?

It’s universal. As we grow up, we are indoctrinated in the values and beliefs of our “tribe”. That’s how we learn to transcend selfishness, develop empathy, become concerned for the good of others.  No doubt you can identify a number of institutions that contributed to your socialization – family, school, church, military. We internalize the viewpoints of those institutions so effectively that, for a while, there is no distinction between their views and ours. As the old AA saying goes, they are living, rent-free, in our heads.


The Costs of Our Reliance On Authority

As we move into adulthood, the unquestioned reliance on those voices doesn’t serve us. It’s one of the tasks of adulthood to separate from the voices and develop our own independent point of view. This is especially important in the post-modern world, as psychologist Robert Kegan has shown us, where we need the complexity of mind to develop our own models, determine what we truly believe, and engage with the conflicting demands of all the stakeholders in our world.

Even so, many of us remain stuck in that old relationship with authority, without realizing it. We continue to hold viewpoints that were handed to us early in our lives, and we unquestioningly accept the views and claims of the authorities in our current working worlds.

Who are your authority figures at work? Perhaps there are internal or external clients whom you feel you must satisfy. Or your boss, or the other senior leaders in your organization.

Have you ever…

  • censored yourself in a group where they were present – didn’t share information that you thought they wouldn’t welcome?
  • spent a lot of time after an interaction with them, scrutinizing what they said or did for hidden meaning?
  • walked away from a meeting in which they assigned you a task, not understanding exactly what they wanted, but not having asked for clarification because you feared appearing clueless or questioning their logic?
  • accepted a directive or expectation from them, even when a small voice inside was telling you this might be the “wrong” action – or you felt there was a better/faster/cheaper/more targeted way to solve the problem but you didn’t want to challenge them?
  • received conflicting priorities from multiple authorities, each thinking theirs is the most important, knowing you can’t do it all but feeling you can’t say no to any of them?

If your answer to any of these questions was “yes,” perhaps there are authority figures living rent-free in your head.


Why Is It So Difficult To Break Out Of These Habits?

We get stuck in these habits because of two things – what we believe to be true, and what we want (or don’t want) for ourselves. For example…

  • We assume that these authorities really want us to obey – rather than to surface conflicting information, disagree openly, raise concerns, etc.
  • We get rewarded by receiving their positive regard and we fear that, if we express a different point of view, or disagree, or question, they will respond with anger or disappointment.
  • We don’t want to damage our relationships with them, and/or we cannot bear their disapproval.
  • We can’t wrap our heads around the possibility that we could have a good idea that conflicts with the authority’s.


A New Way To Think About Authority

How could you ask yourself a different set of questions? Change the way you talk to yourself about the options and consequences of different actions in these situations? Test your assumptions about what would happen if you spoke up? Think about some ways in which  questioning authority might be “good” rather than “bad”. For example…

  •  Perhaps being questioned is exactly what the authority figure wants.
  • Perhaps the consequences of staying quiet are worse than the consequences of speaking up.
  • You may have information that they do not have, about the effects of different actions.
  • If you don’t question them, they’re probably not going to get what they want – for example, if you have received conflicting priorities from multiple bosses, all of which you cannot satisfy.
  • Your idea, which nobody has asked for, might drastically improve your organization’s ability to achieve its goals.


Typical Objections To Thinking Differently About Authority

The objections I’ve heard to this new way of thinking fall into the following buckets.

  • “I was taught to respect authority.” “Respect” is one of those loaded words that needs to be unpacked. What does it mean to you, and why should an authority be given more (or less) of it than anyone else? Try replacing “respect authority” with  “treat everybody the same,” meaning with equal amounts of respect. And if you really want to respect authority, then shouldn’t that respect include giving them the credit for being able to handle your feedback or disagreement?
  • “Question authority? That’s such a 1960’s embrace-the-counterculture” notion.” Embracing counterculture, in this way of thinking, is simply another form of adolescent conformity.  Rebellion is psychologically not that far away from obedience – in either case, one is imbuing authority with importance. I am suggesting you let authority become irrelevant in your mind, so that you develop your own compass for making choices, and respond to authority figures in the same way that you respond to anyone else.
  • “This would only work in Western culture.” Psychologists such as Kegan have confirmed that the developmental process of being indoctrinated by authority, and then being challenged to separate from it, is a universal phenomenon. Remember Stanley Milgram’s experiment, in which participants voluntarily administered what they thought were extreme levels of electric shocks to study subjects, because an “authority figure” (the project leader) told them to do so.  Observers were shocked that this could happen in an “individualistic” culture like our own.
  • “This wouldn’t work in places like the military, where authority must be obeyed.” Well, not even there. A few years ago, there was a kerfuffle when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged graduating West Point seniors to stand up to senior officers, to tell them what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear. He referred, among other things, to the dangerous groupthink that occurs in military circles.

So, what do you think?  The next time you’re about to keep your mouth shut, or give them what you think what you want, try speaking up – just see what the effect is. It might be more positive than you expected.

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