The Appeal and the Problem of Being an Authority Figure

by Dec 30, 2023Leadership

As leaders, we all have had to deal with people who see us too much as authority figures. Such people automatically defer to us, whether we want them to or not.

There are certainly times when such automatic deference would be welcome when the demands of being a leader seem overwhelming. But we know better.

In this article, we’ll briefly explore the dynamics of authority figures, the appeal of being seen as one, the problem of being seen as one, and finally what to do when it is getting in the way.

Understanding Authority Figure-ness

We all have or have had authority figures, people we have automatically deferred to. They were the people who were important to us during our formative years, the people we depended on, for better or for worse, to take of care of us. Deferring to them out of respect or fear was important to our survival.

On automatic, we would treat others who reminded us of such importance with the same deference. Depending on the culture, we can confer deferential importance on to bosses, ministers, entertainers, athletes, even drug dealers and criminals. Leaders, of course, must be on that list.

As we mature, we replace automatic deference with conscious choices about who and when we will defer. The deeper the emotional tie was to the original authority figure, the longer it takes to let go of the seeing that person and similar others as authority figures.

Individuals raised with an emphasis on independent thinking and choice typically find it easier to move beyond automatic deference to authority figures.

As a leader, being seen as an authority figure is something over which you have little initial control. You are the recipient of such influence only because you have reminded someone of a person they have deferred to out of respect and/or fear.

The Appeal of Being Seen as an Authority Figure

At first blush, being seen as an authority figure would seem to make the job of leading easier. Those who see as that way rarely question your decisions. They do what you tell them to do. And they rarely complain to you.

They don’t offer the hassles that people who think for themselves can offer. Therein lies the rub.

The Problem of Being Seen as an Authority Figure

The best leaders want to relate to their people in ways that maximize the energy and intelligence of their individuals, just as they seek to maximize the synergy and creativity that only effective teams can deliver.

Those who are overly deferential will not offer you much of their intelligence or creativity. They simply do what you want them to do. Much of their thinking goes to figuring how to please you or avoid your displeasure.

They are loath to take risks. They will bring to you their problems for you to solve. Thinking for themselves, taking initiative, and creativity are too risky.

They may be a useful pair-of-hands. As a leader, you want and need more than that from your people.

What to Do About It

Here are three things that you can do to turn authority drive behavior into something more useful.

Be Clear about Your Expectations

First, be clear in your own mind about what you expect from your people. Do you want sycophants who are obedient and support your ego?

Do you want empowered people who contribute intellectually, emotionally, and physically to the synergy of your organization? Which do you want, and which does your ego want?

Second, be clear with your people about those expectations. Hold them accountable for meeting them. Remember that accountability always starts with support.

Don’t Collude with Parent-Child Dynamics

Consistent authority figure behavior requires your collusion. If you act like a parent, they are likely to respond as children. For some, that means obedience. For others, that means counter-dependence.

Either party can start the collusion. A new person who acts like they need a parent could trigger your parenting behavior. Likewise, your parenting behavior can trigger their child-like behavior.

Be aware of your tendencies to collude. Don’t go there.

Support Your People to Empower Themselves

Empowered people are self-aware and able to make intentional choices about their behavior when their automatic responses are not taking them where they want to go. They have deliberately chosen to align with you and the success of your organization.

You cannot make some self-aware or to make conscious choice, but you can support them to do so in some very useful ways:

  1.  Don’t do their thinking or problem-solving for them. If they come to you looking for answers, ask for their ideas and how they might research further. Insist that for every problem they want to discuss with you, they offer possible paths-forward as well.
  2. Foster collaboration by insisting that everyone fully participate in planning and problem-solving discussions.
  3.  Acknowledge, appreciate, and reward different thoughts and ideas that contribute to team synergy. Without differences, there will be no synergy or creativity.

In summary, best leaders in the 21st century wield the power of their positions in ways that foster a positive and collaborative environment. We have moved strongly toward supporting people to be the best they can be in an open, diverse, and empowering environment that supports high levels of both productivity and engagement.

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Dr. Michael F. Broom is an organization development psychologist who transforms organizations with his 45+ years of wisdom and expertise . Michael Broom smilingSpecializing in developing leaders, building teams, strategic planning, conflict resolution, and performance management, he emphasizes empowerment and excellence.

He is the author of The Infinite Organization and Power, The Infinite Game.

He is a recipient of the OD Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour of consultation at chumans.com or email him at michael@chumans.com. You’ll be surprised the difference a single hour can make!

Check out his immediately useful services and programs at CHumanS.com.