Thursday, May 17, 2020

Let’s make an end of accepting authority uncritically

There’s altogether too much deference to authority practiced today. It’s time to give it up.

It’s so tempting to look for some authority figure to tell you what to do—especially if you’re tired, confused, stressed, or miserable. At times, everyone wants to be able to relax, knowing that someone else is in charge and knows what’s best. Sadly, while there is no shortage of would-be authorities in the world, trusting them to have your best interests at heart is usually a poor idea—especially if they’re eager to convince you that they have. Uncritical acceptance of authority lies behind a great many of today’s problems. It’s always your life. Don’t let others run it for you.

A little while ago, I came across this great article on the temptations of submitting to authority. It’s so easy to do it: it’s socially approved, takes zero effort, promises freedom from the awkward business of making your own decisions, even claims to offer access to the absolute, unchallenged truth. As the article says:
For many reasons, submitting to authority is extremely attractive. It takes the pressure off. We don’t have to think for ourselves. If any problems arise we don’t have to worry about deciding what to do. We can just do what the leader says and be confident that answer is the final truth.
The trouble is . . . this conventional belief in the value and importance of authority is total BS. It really doesn’t matter whether the authority in question appears as the boss, the organization, Wall Street, dogmatic belief systems, political ideology, or anything else. Any system, doctrine, or person that claims to be able to reveal the absolute, unchallenged truth about anything is lying. Any dogma that can’t accept constant dissent, modification, or the high possibility that it’s wrong is tyranny. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Take any set of authoritarian statements that you like and trace them back over time, and you’ll quickly see that they change and shift—only that fact is never admitted. All our authorities have feet of clay. Some are drenched in blood too.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing” (Socrates)

Take management orthodoxy. How to run a business ought, perhaps, to be a safe candidate for a very high degree of certainty. It’s not too complex, has easily measured outcomes and results, and hundreds of thousands of people do it for most of their working lives—millions even. Surely by now we would know, pretty much with complete certainty, how to do it correctly. The fact that we don’t—that highly-qualified, lavishly-paid executives get it wrong all the time—ought to tell us something about believing that there is one right way and we already know what it is. Many of those authoritative texts you’re made to read in business school, perhaps even most of them, are wrong. Worse, they’re authoritatively wrong.

Do I know the answers? No way! But at least I know that I don’t know. I don’t try to convince myself, or anyone else, that I have an answer to anything. Hell, I don’t even want an answer. Once you have a definite, exact answer, there’s no need to go on looking and exploring. And that’s pretty much death, mentally and spiritually. Which is why boardrooms and executive suites around the world are filled with zombies: the living dead. They know all the answers and stopped looking years ago.

Which is also why so many of them make such a pig-awful job of running their businesses.

Creativity is being different. Mediocrity is being the same.

Deference and obedience to authority is far too highly valued today—even when it’s called “being a good team player,” or “practicality,” or “commitment.” It’s actual value is zero, nil, zilch, nada. It ensures you’ll never learn another thing in life, and all you have to look forward to are years of repetitive, stylized behaviors, like a circus animal pacing endless around its cage. Whatever happens, whatever changes, all you will be able to do is follow the dictates of authority. Welcome to hell.

Hamburger Management, with its obsession with speed, superficial flashiness, limiting costs, avoiding questions that might lead to delay, and being right first time (even if—especially if—you aren’t), produces managers who don’t have the time, the humility, or the ability to reflect or be creative. All they want is answers, the quicker and simpler the better. Since there are none, what they get is BS, humbug, snake oil, and lies, so that’s what they follow.

The essence of creativity is being different in some way, challenging even the most widely-accepted truths, always wanting to know more and to ask why. It’s no surprise that creativity is rarest in organizations that most value fitting in and following the corporate line. To be creative is not just to challenge authority. It goes deeper than that. It is not to pay any heed to authority.

And that, of course, is the most unacceptable sin in the whole canon for those who rely on dogmatic, authoritarian beliefs.

As John Wesley writes in the article that began all this (no, not that John Wesley):
When we submit to authority, we willingly pull the wool over our own eyes, exposing ourselves to manipulation. The greatest catastrophes of human history were caused by submission to authority. The Holocaust was caused by submission to the Nazi authority. September 11th was caused by submission to Bin Laden’s authority. Everyday people are suckered out of hard earned money because they blindly believe in authority. Be distrustful, question what you’re told, and don’t believe that anyone claiming to have all the answers has your best interests at heart.

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Anonymous said...


Wow, great post. I think you've nailed it. Nobody questions authority, especially those that want to eventually be promoted to management. They watch and learn the same mistakes that previous managers do because of the belief THAT is what needs to be done to get the job done and get promoted higher. As the old saying goes 'Insanity is doing something the same way over and over again expecting a different result.'

Keep it up, good man.


7:58 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Dan.

You're absolutely right that subordinates copy their bosses in the belief that doing so will get them promoted in their turn. It's the single most powerful force keeping Hamburger Management alive and well.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:27 AM  
Trevor Twining said...

Someone recently told me I have a problem with authority. After reading this article, I think it is the nicest thing he ever could have said to me.

This is one of my favourite blogs, thanks for the constant inspiration.

4:11 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for the kind praise, Trevor. I'm glad that you enjoy what I write.

I too was always being told that I was too ready to question and much too critical of authority. I always saw this as a wonderful complement.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:34 PM  
Manny said...

I’d like to suggest a word of caution here. The best that has been thought and said on any given subject probably won’t be said by us. Experts really do exist. Whether the topic is management, finance, child-rearing, or gardening, many minds have spent hundreds of man-years focused only on a tiny subject area, and reaping major results. When the Boomers were young, they mistakenly adopted a reflexive revulsion for what they called “authority”, but what often was, indeed, a collection of the best and most successful methods of achieving the greatest successes country had ever known. This reflex is, quite often, a huge waste of time. I have seen many friends and colleagues crushed by the wheel they tried to reinvent, and smarting from the pain of doing it “their way”, when the Right Way would have been just fine. Research shows that the greatest innovations have been, in effect, built on the “shoulders of giants”…that is, incremental creative improvements in existing methods, rather than wild-eyed revolutions. Before one questions authority, one might ask…”do I have the authority to question authority”? That’s one of the reasons I created my Success Books blog.

9:33 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Manny.

I said that one should not accept authority uncritically. That is, always subject any supposed expert or piece of advice to rigorous testing before going along with it.

Automatic rebellion is as irrational as automatic obedience.

But . . . is there one right way on any issue? Personally, I doubt it. There may be "one way that is the best we can do so far," but that doesn't mean we won't find a better way some time, or that circumstances won't change and make today's "right" way obsolete.

Rebellion and questioning are always better sources of creative ideas than acceptance and obedience.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:14 PM  
Christopher Richards said...

I like the Socratic quote. I ran a face-to-face philosophy group for five years. We were not academics. OK some were refugees from the ivory tower. But most of us were ordinary common-or-garden street philosophers. We examined questions with the idea of opening them up, taking another view point, and asking what we might learn.

Many business people have never had any education in conversation, philosophy, or communication. I’ve noticed at business meetings that what passes for discussion is a series of opinions. There is almost never the natural curiosity to ask why one holds such an opinion. These serial monologs are boring.

I blame the education system that substitutes education for training. And education is not a substitute for intelligence, but that is how it is sold. Those that do think for themselves probably rise very fast to the top in organizations or are outside of it. What’s left are task oriented middle-managers who aren’t hired to think for themselves.

Corrine Maier (who I am sure is familiar to your readers) in her book, Hello Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay, says that higher education is valued by employers not for intrinsic skills imparted by the educational institution, but that the employee has demonstrated compliance. The language of the corporation is that of obedience. Meetings are to affirm hierarchy rather than to solicit valued input.

There is so much emphasis on leadership. Leadership training is all the rage. It’s more popular than communication training, which would benefit everyone. Leadership is so ill defined. The corrupt few always will govern the gullible masses. I hope I am not being too cynical here? OK, I am going a bit far, but there is some truth to this.

Authority and authorship are related. I agree with Manny who says that there are genuine experts. We cannot evaluate every proposition. We take things on faith; faith in science, faith in our social system, faith that those who have been to medical school make better doctors than those who have only been to high school.

As for creativity it is everywhere despite the educational system. But don’t look for it inside big companies. Creativity cannot survive in a culture of fear, or if it does it is with courage to be wrong. Take writing for example. To write well, you must be able to tolerate your first horrible drafts. Good writing does not flow from the pen fully formed. We revise and revise. I think P.G. Wodehouse said that it was by the seventh draft is where he put in the spontaneity.

Michele de Montaigne (b.1553) in his essay on education said that the pupil should sift everything and take nothing into his head on simple authority and trust. And on conversation he says, “...agreement is an altogether tiresome constituent of conversation.”


11:02 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a perceptive and helpful comment, Christopher.

I agree that a training (or even some interest and experience) in philosophy would probably be of far greater use to leaders and managers than the theories taught in business schools.

The same would also be true of politicians, who throw opinions around as facts and rarely, if ever, bother themselves with discovering the truth about the world they claim to be building for us.

I think it often comes down to little more than whether you are willing to accept that you should be the person in charge of your own life and choices; or would prefer to accept answers handed to you by someone else. The latter course takes much less work. It also appeals to those who are fearful, since they hope that the authority to whom they surrender their individuality will be able to keep them safe.

Sadly, even the most cursory look at history will prove that such hopes are very often dashed.

Keep reading, my friend.

2:42 PM  

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