Deference to authority is one of those ingrained social elements that play out regularly in the workplace. And naturally so – we are taught to honour and obey our parents. We’re encouraged to show respect for our teachers, elders and community leaders.
Deference, when appropriate and guided by the right motives, is critical for successful functioning of much of our world. Unfortunately, when carried too far, deference to authority creates its own set of problems that are often highly immune to resolution.
When I am working with organizational leaders, there is often a mystique that accompanies their interaction with the executive team or board. It feels like they’re trying to figure out the best way to convey a difficult message or advance a challenging agenda while walking on egg shells. Of course, pushing back is much more difficult when that same pushback is discouraged (subtly or overtly) – either by an unwillingness of executives to receive feedback or actual punishment for people who speak up.
However, it’s vitally important for front line and mid-level leaders to speak up, conveying key information and desired courses of action to senior leaders. Not only on issues related to security or safety but to a wide range of issues that matter – finances, client relationships, employee issues, proposed initiatives, market transitions and project updates. Without this feedback, executives and board members are deluding themselves into thinking they have an accurate picture of what’s really going on in the business.
Changing an overly deferential culture is not easy, but it’s vital for success. Here are some suggestions that may help:
1.) Check your own response to challenging feedback.
- If you do start feeling defensive and threatened in response to some feedback or challenge, avoid an immediate reaction that might shut down the conversation.
- Identify those triggers that set your defensive responses in play. They may be based on certain individuals or personalities, actual subject matter or the forum in which the conversation is taking place.
2.) Encourage team members to speak candidly.
- Give your staff encouragement to express their perspectives, even if they are different from yours. Draw them out through non-challenging questions. Tell them that your positions are often tentative first thoughts and you want them to help you shape your decision-making.
- Recognize people who do speak up. Share why you believe their observations and commentary are helpful, even if different from yours.
3.) Influence others.
- If a colleague or your boss tends to hide behind the shield of authority, determine if they’re aware that this is actually happening and, if so, the resulting consequences. Talk in private about the dynamics of deference and the critical information that just isn’t getting through to them.
- Collaborate with others to identify situations when hierarchy is creating challenges in key aspects of the business, such as client relations, sales results, financial performance and employee engagement. Brainstorm how to reduce or eliminate these barriers and then engage others in that effort.
4.) Distribute power more evenly.
- Move responsibility and authority more broadly within your team and organization. Build the capability of your team members so that they can take on increasingly more complex tasks and make higher-level decisions.
- Of course, accountability will need to be congruent with this increase in responsibility, but it will encourage more staff to be involved with, and care about, key decisions occurring within your team and organization.
5.) Encourage practice.
- Consider implementing training that helps staff take the leap and learn to act outside their comfort zone. Provide guidance on the situations, appropriate to your organization, when push back is welcomed and even encouraged.
- Share the knowledge and skills that enable your team to give and receive challenging feedback. Allow dedicated practice in a safe environment, ideally coached by a respected senior leader in your organization.
- Encourage staff to practice their new capabilities in sessions where you are the actual team lead or taking a lead role in facilitating the discussion. Provide feedback to your team members on how they can improve their capacity to speak up.
Some degree of deference in organizations is both necessary and healthy. However, when things get overly deferential, it leads to resentment, frustration, lower engagement and poor decisions. Make it part of your agenda to eliminate unnecessary deference and to help others do the same.
To get a better handle on the culture of deference in your organization, contact me today (firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-882-8830).