Our Habitual Responses to Authority

I have known for some time now that the models of authority and leadership we have inherited are deeply flawed and fully embedded in the either/or paradigm which underlies our way of living. We lack forms, models, and habits of collaboration which are essential for transforming the way we use power. I have looked at some of the dilemmas and challenges that this presents to any of us who take on responsibility and leadership anywhere and want to do it with care and integrity. One of the obstacles to collaborative leadership that I have looked at is the tragic phenomenon of pervasive disempowerment which makes the challenge of collaborating from above that much more difficult. People hear demands when they are asked to do something by a leader; they remain cynical about efforts to solicit their input and participation in decision-making; or they persist in not expressing themselves honestly even when a leader is committed to creating a no reprisal environment.

Once I began to recover from my despair about not finding ways of changing relationships with people from my own position of limited power, I recognized, sadly, that the same forces that shape how those in power act also shape our responses to those in power. Unless we put deliberate attention into it, we accept without much questioning the notions of power that have been handed down to us as the only version of power there is. When I lead workshops about power, I almost invariably find that people have a deeply suspicious relationship to power. Invariably, this has been because of what they associate with power: lack of care for others, top-down unilateral decision-making, and power-over relationships. We accept, in particular, another either/or aspect of the prevalent power paradigm: that the only possible responses to power are submission or rebellion.

Submission Can Take Many Forms

Submission can sometimes be blatant and based on fear of real or perceived consequences that might come our way if we “disobey.” At such times the person deferring may very well be aware of doing something they would rather not be doing, and believe there is no other choice. The more I work within organizations, the more I learn both how pervasive this fear is, and how entrenched are the real consequences that people would have to be willing to face in order to respond to authority in an empowered way. I see it not only in traditional command-and-control organizations. I also see it in places where some efforts are being made to create change. I have encountered leaders who speak of collaboration, who genuinely believe they want empowerment for their workforce, and still want everyone to do what they say and will not tolerate active disagreement. I have seen situations in which people are invited to tell the truth and then suffer consequences when they tell an unwelcome truth. In a volatile world, with an economy that is likely to continue indefinitely to be precarious, the risk of losing a job may be too frightening.

However, the force of submission goes beyond such obvious examples. I am particularly challenged to understand why subtle forms of submission persist even when I fully trust the intentions of the person in a position of leadership, especially when that someone is myself. I know of many times that people defer to authority automatically, internally, not in any way that’s based on specific fear of consequences. This is the area where I most want to create change. I don’t expect masses of people to become major individual heroes and be willing to face the possibility of social ostracism or material deprivation in order to regain their full human power. I do hope that within alternative structures and organizations, where the commitment to shifting how power is used is real and authentic, people will find a way to become empowered enough from within to engage fully instead of deferring without engaging at all. I have engaged in any number of profound and honest conversations with dozens of people who, in big and small ways, were deferring to me when I had absolutely no interest in them doing so. Why would people do that?

First and foremost, it’s clear to me that people are not specifically aware of giving their power away, which makes it difficult to remember to wake up and make a different choice. It seems almost natural for many of us that “the person in leadership” gets their way, as if that is simply how it is, not a choice made by humans which can then be made differently. I so often hear that it simply didn’t occur to someone that they could say “no” or could ask a question when they weren’t clear about something, or make a request to do something different than what I proposed. These kinds of interactions took place not only within the context of the organization in which I am a leader. I also regularly experience them in the context of workshops, even while talking about power and learning how to shift from power over people to power with people.

Disempowerment is deeply ingrained in us through home and school to such a degree that the consequences are now internal. No one has to punish us any more; we suffer when we challenge someone in authority because of the doubt about whether we really matter; because we are afraid we would be perceived as rude, taking up too much time or space; not going along with the program. In short, we are afraid of loss of acceptance and shame more than of specific consequences.

Dehumanizing People in Power

One of the more painful experiences of leadership is the repeated experience of separation from others. Submission, and the fear that breeds it, are only one of its many forms. One of the most painful ones for me is the experience of being put on a pedestal. To begin with, I am immediately seen as more than, different from ordinary mortals. Needless to say, being put on a pedestal increases the chances of deferring to what I want. What’s even more unsettling for me is that I become nervous, immediately, because I know almost with certainty that when I am idolized today I am likely to be criticized tomorrow. Sooner or later my actual humanity will take a form that is not matching the idealized version of me that the person has, and when my actions then are not aligned with what they want and long for, I can be judged harshly, perhaps even more harshly by virtue of the shame a person may have for having thought me different and better. While this phenomenon of pedestal/discredit is prevalent, it is particularly challenging because of my role as a Nonviolent Communication trainer. I am held to impossible standards, as if I could always, 100% of the time, be conscious and aware, without faltering. I become a symbol for people’s hopes for a different way of being, which then get dashed precisely because they are pinned on one individual instead of spread around, including the very person having them. I then feel alone, longing for my humanity to be visible.

My humanity is invisible in small ways, too. Just yesterday I had an example of this in a group that I’ve been meeting with, monthly and intimately, since February. When we each take a turn speaking of our lives, at least some people forget that I am one of the people who would take a turn and count how many are left without including me. It simply doesn’t occur to them that I am a human member of the group, because of the fact that I am leading the group. This is just one instance of a larger phenomenon of not seeing that leaders have needs like everyone else. It’s not about not caring; far from it. I’ve been with this group long enough to know the depth of love and appreciation that exist in this group toward me. I see it as being primarily about the invisibility of the human fallibility, frailty, and vulnerability of leaders. I have dedicated years of my life to learning to show my vulnerability at all times, including especially when I lead, because I want to counter such tendencies, and still it happens. I want to find a way to transform this dynamic, to support people in fully empowering themselves to see my humanity alongside theirs, not more, not less.

Rebellion Doesn’t Change Power Relations

So is rebellion and defiance the way out of the dynamics of power from below? Unlikely. One of the early lessons I learned from Marshall Rosenberg was that rebellion keeps the existing terms of the relationship. Even if I choose not to do what you tell me to do, even if I am bold enough to risk the consequences, I am not questioning the fundamental logic of how we relate to each other.

This was a hard lesson to grasp for me, because disobedience was an article of pride for me. I still remember the joy of refusing to do what I am told, risking, and sometimes receiving, the punishment, and feeling a rush of power inside me. I particularly remember the many times when rebellion took the form of doing exactly what I was told with an attitude of defiance that was not lost on my father. I told him, in every fiber of my body, that my sense of human dignity was kept separate from the choice to do what I was told to do. I wanted him to know that he didn’t have access to my spirit. If I am honest all the way, I have not fully shed the pleasure of rebellion, the intoxicating sense of being stronger than someone who appears to have the power to “make” me do something. I do, however, know fully now that an entirely different way is possible.

Rebellion against power sometimes takes an entirely different form, where what is being rejected is the whole idea of leadership and power, not just a particular leader or a specific action. This is the ethos that I understood to have operated in the Occupy encampments and movement more generally, a climate in which people were reluctant to provide active facilitation for fear of being attacked as taking power and leadership. Once again, the either/or thinking comes through: the only alternative to dictatorial power-over was seen as operating in a permanent state of full, inclusive participation. I am sad to say that I see the anti-authoritarian ethos as one of the reasons why the Occupy movement ultimately didn’t manage to catapult larger segments of the population into significant nonviolent resistance even though at one point the positions of the movement reached an unprecedented degree of support within the entire population of the US. More on this another day.

Beyond Either/Or

Although I feel myself in the early stages of understanding how to transcend either/or when it comes to power, I have walked long enough on the road to see that another way is possible. The obstacles, inner and outer, are clearly formidable. I refuse to consider them insurmountable. I say this word “refuse” with conscious awareness of its implications. It’s weaker than to be able to actually paint a picture of what it would look like from the position of not having power in a situation. I am inching my way there, and plan on writing more about it as I figure it out. Soon I plan to write about the glimpses I already have of what it can be like to choose to respond to authority with our full humanity, with power, with courage to face consequences, and with utmost love.

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3 thoughts on “Our Habitual Responses to Authority

  1. J McElhaney

    Hi Miki:
    Much to think about.
    In the section on submission: I see these same thing. I want to bring in to the discussion another angle, which is where people are so in touch with their ability to say "no," ask questions, etc. that they do so in a way that does not hold seem to consider the needs of the group. I mention this because in the last couple of weeks I've heard

  2. Stephanie

    Thanks, Miki, for this food for thought. It reminds me of the basis for my spiritual practice: to learn what to rebel against and cooperate with in my own thoughts. Extending this to our relationships with an ever-widening circle of people requires that inner toughness to obey one's conscience while not rejecting people and humanity in the process. In short, I am very interested in exploring

  3. Rich Ann

    Your post is timely as I am reading and working through exercises in “Negotiating at an Uneven Table: Developing Moral Courage in Resolving Our Conflicts” by Phyllis Beck Kritek. I would encourage you to check it out. The second part of the book has ten ways of being to explore and they might help clarify the glimpses of other ways that you have experienced. Many thanks for all your efforts!

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