Working with authority/hierarchy - how do you do it?
December 5, 2016 10:11 AM   Subscribe

In a conversation with my sister the other day, I realized that no-one in my family is comfortable dealing with authority/hierarchy. My parents weren't, either. Our interactions with authority figures are often limited to avoidance, anxiety/paralysis, or confrontation. If you grew up in a family that was comfortable working within hierarchies and successful at getting things done within them, what habits/ideas/strategies/etc. would you suggest as helpful?
posted by clawsoon to Human Relations (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Once upon a time, after a very long fight/discussion with my boss over an indexing term, she said to me, "You may be entirely right, and I may be entirely wrong, but I am your boss, so I will win this."

It wasn't said in malice, but in a gentle way to remind me that sometimes, it's better to let your boss do things their way, especially if yours is willing to take the blame for being wrong (as well as the glory for being right).
posted by xingcat at 10:15 AM on December 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

Start by assuming that all the authority figures are people, just like you, and that no matter how high up they seem, they have a boss (or more than one!) to please, too. They face constraints in their role, guaranteed.

Assuming we're talking about an ongoing working relationship here (as opposed to, say, a run-in with the IRS or an encounter with pure evil or something)....One good way to get things done in a hierarchy is to try to understand the constraints and pressures on those in authority, and to figure out whether it is in your power to make their job a little easier (it often is) - this often leads to authority figures going out of their way to make your job a little easier in return. Another good way is to really understand the rules. In many organizations the actual rules are complex and poorly communicated, and this gap in knowledge is a source of frustration and power imbalance all around. But if you take the time to ferret them out (or ask for information) you can sometimes figure out, for instance, exactly what the process for requisitioning an employee bonus from central HR is. And when you know what the process is, you can gather all the needed elements and make it really, really easy for your basic busy authority figure to put their weight behind you, instead of at cross-purposes to you.
posted by Ausamor at 10:27 AM on December 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

I am not sure if this is what you were looking for, but I was raised by a single mother who was very rule-conscious. She had been a nun, and then worked in civil service, then a library, all rule-bound contexts. From her I learned to become aware of the written/declared rules of a place as soon as possible, and to observe closely to discover the unwritten rules, exceptions, and so on. (Most rules are flexible, often due to individuals being flexible.)

While your question is about authority and hierarchy, the main tool of such systems is the rule. Knowing what will get you into trouble or when you are about to do something which others do not dare to do for stated reasons might be a way to investigate this further.
posted by Riverine at 10:57 AM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the most useful things I learned from my dad re: authority was to get mad at the appropriate person at the appropriate time.

As an example, if your internet goes out for the eleventy seventh time and you need to call your isp to get some kind of resolution, the first person you talk to cannot help you. The first line of defense pretty much everywhere you go is a customer service person who has almost no real power and who doesn't get paid enough to be abused by consumers. But they're the ones who end up taking 90% of the bullshit.

If you call and calmly say something like, "I'm experiencing a recurring service issue and I know it's not your fault and I also know this isn't something you can help me with, can you please transfer me to a supervisor?" things are going to go a lot better for you. Stay calm, be polite, be persistent, and keep doing that until you're pushed up the chain of command until you talk to someone with some actual power. You might have to wait on hold for a while, but eventually you're going to be talking to someone who can refund a significant portion of your bill.

This translates to a ton of situations. Being sober and polite and clearly stating your next goal is the best way to get you to the next step of the process.
posted by phunniemee at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2016 [21 favorites]

Oh, and another thing. Recognize your privilege and use it for good, and realize that you're usually only going to be effective punching laterally.

As a middle class well spoken white person, I have the ability to step into situations and be taken seriously in ways that poor people, people with limited communication ability, or people of color might not. If I see what I think is an abuse of authority going in the direction of someone with less privilege than I have, I have the opportunity to step in and speak up with relatively low personal risk. There is a very low likelihood that I will be arrested or shot for walking up and questioning a police officer, for instance.

On the other hand, as a woman, if the problem I'm trying to solve is being gatekept by men, I have limited ability to be heard and succeed. In the confront-a-cop scenario, there is a much higher chance that I will be laughed at and condescended to than if I were a white man.

So recognizing where your privilege or lack of it places you in the social structure can help you figure out how to proceed.
posted by phunniemee at 12:47 PM on December 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

It helps to think about what authority IS. We'll leave off the police for a minute, because that's more abstract. Just think about a boss at work. Or not even. The concept comes up dozens of times a day in everyday life.

Let's say you're... I don't know, folding a thousand paper cranes for decoration for a thing. You ask someone to help you. They think paper pigs would be cooler and start using your paper to do that. You're going to have to exert some authority to say, hey, no. Cranes, or stop helping. The reason you have that authority is that you're responsible for the outcome.

Furthermore, if you got the folding job from someone else who asked for cranes and aren't just doing it because you like cranes, you don't even have the authority to allow the pigs. They asked for cranes, and you said you would give it to them. Now you can't let your friend do pigs instead.

When I think about it that way, I don't see what's to resent about it. Someone's responsible for a thing, and so they get to say how they want the thing. Successive layers of authority are just about how the details break down so that the next level up gets what they wanted. I might tell one of my direct reports I want X outcome. In theory, I don't care how they do it, as long as I get X. But I also know I've been doing this longer than that person, and/or may know more about what features of X are nice to have vs. absolutely required. If X is very important, and my confidence not 100% for whatever reason, I might "micromanage" my person a bit more than usual so I don't find out at the last second that X isn't going to be what I needed.

The police are kind of the same concept, in that they're responsible to not let crimes happen, and catch the perpetrators when they do. In that sense, they have the authority necessary to achieve those goals. They... are not always successful at using that authority for the purposes it was given. It helps to think they're humans too, doing their best to live up to their responsibility the best they know how.
posted by ctmf at 12:51 PM on December 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

My parents were pretty great, accessible, accepting people, but we had a clear understanding that they still made the rules and got our respect. I find treating bosses/superiors like my parents -- as people I trust who mean well for me, and to whom I can talk when I need to do so, but also as people who deserve my respect and whose rules need to be followed, has been a good workplace strategy for me. Also helpful is to think about your bosses' job and how you can make it easier for them. Lastly, always aim to be reliable, meaning punctual, honest, and willing to make deadlines to which you've agreed.

The more awesome an employee you are, the faster you tend to be recognized and given authority of your own.
posted by bearwife at 12:54 PM on December 5, 2016

The key to working within a hierarchy is to remember the one key fact: if your boss could do it all him/herself, you wouldn't be there. You're a representative of your boss. This thing you're about to do - is that what your boss would do in your shoes? Yes? Do it. Hell no? Don't.

The tricky part, and common point of friction is when you know something the boss doesn't, so you're making a more informed decision. That doesn't make you right until you've "educated" your boss beforehand, or built up the kind of relationship where your boss trusts you that much. Know how much and what subjects you have that kind of autonomy on, and know your boss's "inform me immediately if..." list at all times.

A good boss will start with a very directive approach, then start backing off through general coaching, supporting from the sideline, and finally implicit trust. The first parts can feel not great and chafe when you're a high performer. The way to speed up the process is to meet all expectations in the earlier stages, not to fight against the process or jump ahead. That just lowers confidence in you and gets you back to square one.
posted by ctmf at 1:08 PM on December 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

It sounds as though this is much easier if you generally trust authority.

Hmm. That's challenging.
posted by clawsoon at 2:05 PM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I did not grow up in a family that was comfortable in hierarchy. It was also a family where authority was created through physical violence and verbal berating. As I've grown up and gotten Real Adult Jobs, though, I've grown more comfortable with not only being in a hierarchy, but also occupying a middle tier where I'm not the top, but also not the absolute bottom.

Key realizations were:

1. Not all hierarchy is abusive or enforced with violence of the physical, emotional, or verbal sort.

2. In a healthy work environmental, authority is a way of dividing responsibility -- but also apportioning risk. A significant part of the reason I've stayed at my current job despite the fact I could walk across the street and make 40% more is because the two people that I primarily report to are (1) very smart at dealing with risk, and (2) very good in dealing with the fallout of taking a risk, and having things go south. Nobody gets thrown under a bus. Everybody works hard. Communication is clear, and expectations are reasonable.

3. Sometimes, people actually! do! know! more than I do.

4. Authority is not inherently toxic. There are ways to use authority for good, like when I can use my authority to cut something ridiculous off at the pass, or to ensure that someone doing a good job gets rewarded.

tl;dr: I found authority that I could respect, and I realized it wasn't all bad.
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:57 PM on December 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

It's not just trust but also an expectation of reasonableness - both theirs (they acting based on rules and responsibilities mentioned above) but also that it is entirely reasonable that you can make (reasonable) requests of them and that those requests will be considered and, if reasonable, granted.

If you grow up experiencing parents and teachers and other authority figures who listen to your side and give consideration to what YOU want, you walk into these adult situations with a level of confidence that helps makes that expectation come true. If you grew up with experience that authority figures were capricious or uncaring then you are going into the adult encounters in a fight/flight mode that puts you on edge before you've even started. Sounds like that's the attitude learned from your parents so your basic instincts don't help.

So, my advice might be to figure out a role model of someone with privilege and confidence. I'm thinking James Bond or maybe Oprah. So ask yourself, What would James Bond/Oprah do? Then imagine yourself channeling your role model, what would that look like? More importantly, what would it feel like to be coming from that place of confidence? Then try to get in touch that feeling before you start. Don't do a full on imitation (in some situations that might even be too much) but let that style influence you.
posted by metahawk at 2:59 PM on December 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Eh, well not blindly trusting. Your experiences with the people you interact with regularly are going to lead you to trust them or not trust them individually. Your overall experiences are going to inform your initial reactions when you first meet someone. Humans generalize from their experiences.

When my director at work asks me to do something I don't completely understand, I do it. Because I know him and find him to be a generally smart and trustworthy guy. He's also shown over time that he's totally willing to explain, only sometimes doesn't have time in the moment. And when we've disagreed, I can still admit that it's been within his prerogative and necessary to living up to his responsibilities as he knows them, not gratuitous abuse of authority.

If a director from another department does the same thing, I'm still inclined to do it, because I know my director and previous ones, and others, and they have all been the same way. So I can give this one the benefit of the doubt until they show they don't deserve it.

Your experience with authority figures may not work the same way. If not, it's not irrational to be suspicious, and I'm not sure what you can do about that except to get to know some good examples.
posted by ctmf at 3:09 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

metahawk: If you grew up with experience that authority figures were capricious or uncaring then you are going into the adult encounters in a fight/flight mode that puts you on edge before you've even started. Sounds like that's the attitude learned from your parents so your basic instincts don't help.

To clarify a little further: My experience was not like that of joyceanmachine. My parents, for the most part, took care to explain their decisions to us. They were not capricious and uncaring. But the flipside of explaining their decisions to us was their attitude - which I picked up - that power should come from demonstrated competence, not from hierarchical relationships. Decisions should be made on the basis of the facts of the case, not on the basis of who's higher in the org chart. Hierarchical relationships, they felt, give power to people who often don't deserve it, and decisions made on the basis of hierarchy were as likely as not to be the wrong decisions.

The hardest cases are the ones where someone up the chain of command is making what appears to be a wrong decision, and is compounding it by demonstrating lack of knowledge about the decision that they're making. That's the situation that's hardest for me to deal with.
posted by clawsoon at 3:11 PM on December 5, 2016

It sounds as though this is much easier if you generally trust authority.

Hmm. That's challenging.

The hardest cases are the ones where someone up the chain of command is making what appears to be a wrong decision

OK, so a couple of thoughts may help you:

1. Unlike other authority figures, you do pick your bosses by choosing your workplace. So it is like getting into a friendship or a romantic relationship -- you trust those you choose, yes? Certainly they get a presumption of trust.

2. If someone is making what looks to be a wrong decision, think what might help your direct boss and that person to right it. Like useful research or data. And think of a respectful way to provide that. If you were the one up the chain, that is what would help you.

The key here is learning to be reliable. That doesn't mean being a rubber stamp or yes-person. It means figuring out how to be consistently helpful, which in turn means you need to assume a supportive and informative, not a fighty or oppositional role.
posted by bearwife at 3:56 PM on December 5, 2016

I inherently dislike hierarchy but I am a FANTASTIC subordinate when I trust the authority figure. So I only choose to participate in hierarchy when my own judgement of the competence hierarchy aligns pretty closely with the organizational hierarchy. If I'm invited into any situation where I know my hierarchical superior is my competencey inferior- and they are not deferring to me in my area of expertise- I just say no. I can bite my tongue for a few weeks, and sometimes the pay or other rewards make it worthwhile to do so, but usually I just won't engage with bullshit hierarchy for more than about a month, and then only if I'm well compensated to do so.

My advice is to make sure you work for bosses you respect and avoid situations where you are subordinate to people whose judgement (or methodology or politics or taste or whatever) you disagree with. In particular stay far away from authoritarian leaders who expect to lead by tenure rather than skill, they're a nightmare.

When you work for authority figures you trust, everything is pretty much either a pleasure and privilege (oh thaaaat's how one handles situation x, I'm learning so much here!) or it doesn't really matter (I would have solved that problem in a different way but their way will totally work).

When you work for authority figures you don't respect or who abuse their power, everything is a stressful misery- even when they are making good choices- because you can't trust them so you can never relax- they might make you do stupid shit you don't want to do, or pull rank and treat you poorly, and it sucks. Some people don't mind. I do. You do. Do yourself a favour and just don't!

Just stay far away from "authority" and try to limit your hierarchical interactions to people you respect. With the exception of annual brushes with bureaucracy and occasional interactions with law enforcement, it's actually pretty doable once you're at a certain career level.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:20 PM on December 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

There's a lot of social class analysis which discusses parental reactions to trouble with the school: in a lower socio-economic status family it is looked at as yet more bad news, with little that can be done; middle, something to be discussed with the school and sorted out in a way that the child takes on increased responsibility to fix the problem; upper, similar to middle, except the expectation is that the school will take on increased responsibility to fix the problem.

That hierarchy of expectations -- with you at the 'I pay property taxes. The school should do more for me and my child(ren)' stage -- can be used for a lot of things. I (in a small town with limited resources for bylaw infractions &c) had a problem with a noisy business. I was not quiet about it. I agitated, I talked to neighbours, I politely bothered elected officials, I called the police on bad nights. It never occurred to me that I might be powerless or that my calls/e-mails should not cause somebody to work on fixing my problem for me. If I ran into somebody whose responses were wanting, I went upwards in the hierarchy, adding "Furthermore, I was initially referred to Mr John Smith, and ended up wasting a lot of time as apparently Mr Smith does not have the authority to address this problem. Please talk to Mr Jones about appropriate referrals for problems of this nature..." Throughout all of this I never thought anything but: Why shouldn't these people help me? It's their damned job to do so! Since I'd only reached the point where the problem abated slightly but was not fixed, I was gearing up to go and visit the mayor's office with my child, who has cried when this crap roadhouse kept her up late, in tow, as it did not occur to me that young children do not deserve an audience with rural mayors when they have local issues of concern to them. (But then the place finally shut down, much to everyone's relief.)

You need a pretty robust -- but reasonable, and polite -- sense of entitlement. Of course my child deserves an audience with the mayor; her mother pays property taxes, this is a local issue of concern to her, why on earth shouldn't she, etc? You also need the expectation that: (particularly) (where it is their job to do so) people want to help you, they should help you, and, once they understand your problem correctly, they will help you. If they do not, they have been poorly trained and you need to escalate to the next rung on the ladder.

For situations where it's a little more nebulous as to whether or not it's somebody's 'damned job' to fix my problems, my favourite thing to do, which I learned at a very young age, is to dress to the nines and install myself in somebody's office, and politely explain my problem, and politely explain what the people in that office can do to help me with my problem. Her Honour is out of the office until later in the day? That's fine; I'll return at 3pm. And I gently make clear that the only way to be free of me -- kind, polite, total pest -- is to help me as I have outlined. Sometimes it still amazes me how well this works.

The Logic of Stupid Poor People is a very good article; note the "I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends."
posted by kmennie at 4:33 PM on December 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't think about authority as naturally-given power, intrinsic to any person. Instead it's just a role that someone is in, similar to how I have a role. We're all members of a team, and the team is working toward a goal. To get to our goal someone usually has to fill the role of boss or person-in-charge. Groups need both leaders and followers. The leader has positional authority, because they're the person who is doing the authoritative things. That comes along with responsibilities and power. But it's not intrinsically better. It just involves a different way of working and possibly different consequences based on the results.

So if someone has positional authority, I just seek to respect that as a function of their role. It doesn't mean anything about their competency or goodheartedness or what I think of them as a person. But it does have implications for how I act toward them and consider them while I do my part to work toward the group's goal. I kind of give myself internal kudos when I follow a hierarchy or authority, because I know I'm contributing toward our overall success. And I de-attach my part in the work from theirs--if they do things wrong, but I did my part right, I can rest easily because the hierarchical system says I have done what I needed to do.

Relational authority is something else, and it sounds like that is perhaps what you're seeking in the authority figures who you have a hard time respecting. Relational authority is developed through relationships, examples, precedents, interactions. It's related with a person's character and it can't be demanded but it can be earned.
posted by ramenopres at 5:08 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I manage to function in a very bureaucratic organization even though it does not come naturally to me. Two things that help are 1), reminding myself that "somebody has to direct traffic," and 2), as ramenopres points out, you can respect the position without thinking anything in particular about the person in it.
posted by rpfields at 6:00 PM on December 5, 2016

It sounds as though this is much easier if you generally trust authority.

Hmm. That's challenging.

In this case, trust is a strategy, not some mystical thing you have to feel in your heart.

Your current interactions with authority figures go badly, and you wonder how to better get things done in an hierarchy. And unanimously, the answers point to starting from a stance of cooperation and mutual regard. Not because all authority figures 'deserve' it, but because that is a generally successful strategy for being effective in working with hierarchy in many organizations (with some toxic exceptions, of course!)
posted by Ausamor at 9:43 AM on December 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another way that may help framing these interactions is to frame them in terms of identifying your goals, and then identifying the most effective ways of achieving your goals. Then it doesn't matter a lot if your authority figure gained their authority through competency or through some other means -- how they got where they are is probably irrelevant to your goals.

Then, of course, the best strategies will depend on both the authority you're dealing with and your goal. For example, if I want to pay less money for my internet, I've found it's effective to make polite but public requests to ISPs via social media. The same strategy likely won't work for getting a speeding ticket reduced, because the City Attorney's Office doesn't really care about their twitter rep.

As for this example: "The hardest cases are the ones where someone up the chain of command is making what appears to be a wrong decision, and is compounding it by demonstrating lack of knowledge about the decision that they're making."

What's your goal? How you react should be governed by your problem. Is it with this specific decision, in which case you may want to try and convince the decisionmaker to change their mind or find a way to avoid the decision's effects. Or does it bother you that this position is in a position of authority you think they're incompetent for, and maybe you want to stage a coup of some sort? Or leave the organization entirely? The goal should dictate the strategy.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:40 PM on December 6, 2016

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