Sig vs. Authority
I think it is fair to say I have a history of resisting authority. Be it parents, teachers, government, or employers I’ve had my share of confrontations in which I defy another person’s attempt to assert control over what I think, say, or do. (Generally in that order of resistance; greatest to least.) The older I get, the better I have been at choosing my battles and avoiding such conflicts, but when push comes to shove, I can be very stubborn and am not prone to deference.
I am not some rebel that hates the whole idea of authority. On the contrary, I think leadership and authority are very important and I try to honor that. I am at heart, an incredibly loyal person. I implicitly trust people and love being helpful. Few things make me feel better than having pleased someone else through my efforts. I like following and working for a good leader. Where the trouble tends to come from is this: I don’t feel any person is intrinsically better or more important than any other. I follow leadership because leadership is valuable and necessary, not because of their title or station or even because of their power.
As an employee/volunteer, I have a kind of code. I will always do what I am told to do by my superior so long as I desire to keep my position and I don’t find the order immoral. When I disagree with an action on any other grounds I will argue against it, but I won’t disobey and will try to carry out my superior’s plan to the best of my ability. I try to limit my argument to that which is useful and if someone in authority tells me it is a final decision, then I’ll drop it. I may revisit my critique if the old plan failed and we face the same challenge but not until then.
What I cannot do and will not do is simply agree just because I am told to. Some leaders I have encountered simply are not happy with people who obey, they want folks to agree that their plan is the best and can’t stand the idea that anyone wouldn’t see things as they do. People with this kind of attitude don’t mix well with me. They tend to think that fear and power are enough to sway me and that just doesn’t work. Gentleness, patience, and polite requests for my cooperation work great. Fear, intimidation, and aggression just get returned with more of the same from me. The more aggression thrown my way, the more I reflect it back though I try to always stay civil and respectful.
As a supervisor, I try to practice what I preach as an employee. I give my employees respect, I want to hear their honest opinions, even if critical of my actions, but I expect them to carry out directives when ordered to. When someone tells me they have a better way, I am prone to trying it out if at all feasible. I feel that if I have decided to employ someone I should empower them to make things better through their skills and ideas. I also think people work harder when their own ideas are on the line. When there is conflict, I don’t make threats, I lay out possible actions and consequences. Ultimately, if we can’t work as a team then I will let them go as politely and respectfully as possible.
I don’t want to make out like I am fearless in the face of authority. I recall the first time I ever appeared in court to dispute a traffic ticket. When I stood before the judge I could feel myself trembling. There was nothing hostile about the judge, but he represents the full force of the law in my society and I was intimidated. None the less, I said what I was there to say and accepted the final judgment; “guilty, pay the fine.” I also once had the police pull guns on me and you can be sure I was very obedient and respectful. (It was my first traffic stop and I made the mistake of getting out of my car to talk to them, a case when being big and scary is not an advantage.)
But here the courts and the police have real teeth and these were all cases where I had indeed done something wrong, no terrible crimes, just speeding, but none the less made a mistake and had some justice coming my way. When the consequences of my actions are a scolding or even losing a job, I am not typically cowed. I’ve always been able to find work and advance my career through hard work and loyal service. If my service is no longer pleasing, then so be it. I think employers and employees should find good matches and if it doesn’t work out, they should part ways.
I don’t want it to sound like my employment history is especially rocky. I’ve been fired twice and laid off once in 25 years of work. I’ve been promoted in nearly every job I’ve ever held and received a lot of praise as a good employee and as a good boss. Still, there is no denying that others who consistently kept their head down lasted longer than I did. My most significant conflicts come when there is a change in leadership and the new leader attempts to assert their dominance rather than build a relationship with their new charges. My loyalty to my fellow employees and sometimes the old boss can make me especially resistant to someone looking to lay down the law where I have already put down roots.
That change in leadership is actually a pattern I’d not really considered until writing this piece. On reflection of those professional encounters that resulted in me leaving or being told to leave, all of them involve a change in leadership occurring within a year of my departure. In two of three such cases, the new leader I clashed with voluntarily left the company not long after I did, usually within six months. There could be some meaning behind that, or it could be simple coincidence as two instances of three in 25 years does not exactly make for a pattern. Also, not every change in leadership brought conflict. I’ve been through as many as not that went just fine for me.
Honestly, I still have a lot to learn about how to manage challenging relationships of unequal authority. There are some who are very good at influencing people higher up the corporate food chain. I am admittedly not one of them. I’ve enacted a lot of change in places I’ve worked and felt that my influence is a positive one for the companies I work for. But I’ve often been frustrated in trying to get others to adopt and champion those changes as their own. While I don’t shy from confrontation, I would rather learn how to avoid and mitigate it as often as possible without compromising my values or my efforts as an employee. And when I’m in a position of authority, I want to be the kind of leader I would admire and be happy to work with.