Clear, Useful Power—The Difference between Authoritative and Authoritarian

Clear, Useful Power—The Difference between Authoritative and Authoritarian

Yes, I was one of those starry-eyed individuals (OK, technically a “hippie”) who thought that if we could just get the right crew of groovy people together, things would work out somehow. Well, that got me/us a certain distance, but nowhere near far enough. There are times and places where we do need to exercise appropriate power—on the personal, professional, and organizational levels—not to use it over people, or as a mask for our own insecurity, but as a means of respectful service.

Sample scenario #1: The Acme Esoteric Supply Company has weekly meetings, where all business decisions of any minor significance are put on the agenda to be determined by virtue of full consensus. Unfortunately, some team members are growing more frustrated because additional items are added every week without resolving the issues already on the list since no consensus means no decision.

Sample scenario #2: Fritz believes he is benevolent in his authority and tries to take in everyone’s point of view. The thing that drives his team nuts is that he often has to make a decision and waffles on it because he knows he can’t please everyone, so he ends up pleasing no one because of this inaction.

Why will this help me at work? Everyone has some element of power in his or her position, regardless of rank or experience (assuming it’s owned and practiced reasonably well). How we take a clear stance, how we take care of ourselves, and how we advocate for what feels right and just are all additional ways that we can be of service to the enterprise.”

Why is this so difficult at times? The primary reluctance to own or exercise authority is based on two underlying fears. The first is “If I challenge those who have more perceived power than me, I will potentially suffer negative consequences,” including the dreaded “termination.” On the other hand, for those who have power by virtue of defined position, the concern is “by exercising that power, I won’t be liked.”

Your frank self-assessment:

  • Are you one of those who “chafe at authority,” whether it belongs to you or others?
  • Where in your life do you feel like you have a sense of your balanced personal power (it could even be at a bowling alley!)?
  • What keeps you from taking risks when you need to challenge someone who you believe has more power or authority than you?”

My tips:

  • Think about the wordplay between “authoritarian” and “authoritative”—one is about imposing, while the other is about disclosing, proposing, and then making it happen.
  • You may want to check and see if there are some “old ghosts” in terms of bad authorities. (For me it was Mrs. Rice with that dreaded wooden paddle in fifth grade.) Be aware of when those old reactions may appear now.
  • Reframe the negative feelings of someone having more authority over you. Move toward a place where others are in the midst of similar struggles in terms of how to be both a businessperson and a human being.

Action for traction:

  • Make a list of your “ordinary powers” and your “superpowers”—if you don’t believe you have any (or enough), ask a trusted advisor.
  • Imagine yourself as the Queen or King of your workplace. What would you do differently? What capacities would you need to look at and change so that you could be both caring and accomplished?
  • Write down some areas where you want more power or authority (or even less).

Baked-in benefits:

  • It’s wonderful to have less fault, blame, and fear when we deal with those in power.
  • You actually can experience a greater ease at being yourself regardless of who’s in the room.
  • One real outcome can be the option of growing your sphere of influence.

Excerpt From: Flip Brown. “Balanced Effectiveness at Work. How to Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor without Driving Yourself Nuts.”  Published by: Starr Farm Press