Management hierarchy does one thing well: it provides a clear answer to the question “Who’s in charge here?” Some of us lead, the rest of us follow. It doesn’t get much clearer than that!
That clarity goes out the window once an organization shifts to self-organization.
Now, who leads and who follows?
The answer: it depends.
Learning to decide when to lead and when to follow is a constant practice in taking up and giving authority.
Why become aware of your own leading and following habits?
It depends on what is being decided, what roles are involved, and what authority those roles have been granted. Now that we can’t look to the hierarchy for answers, we need to learn to both lead and follow, depending on the role we play in a given situation, and switch seamlessly between them.
That sounds simple, but most of us have a preference for either leading (taking up authority) or following (giving authority).
In practice, this can look like this (from you or colleagues):
– Not taking decisions or deferring to others, rather than using the authority of your role
– Reacting with high emotional charge to any leadership initiative by others
– Not speaking up when you feel a tension, have an objection, etc.
… and many other, often subtle ways of reacting to authority
Sound interesting, or even painfully familiar?
During the meetup, Diederick shared a different perspective on authority and hosted a conversation about the challenges of taking up and giving authority in more healthy and mature ways.
About Diederick Janse
Diederick is a Holacracy Master Coach at Energized.org and has supported dozens of organizations on their self-organization journey. Some years ago he became interested in the human side of authority, or how to fully take up and own (formally granted) authority as well as follow and support your colleagues when they do the same.
Once he learned about the topic, he started noticing how often authority patterns predict choices. For example, Diederick is the co-founder of a self-organizing company (yes, Energized.org :-)). And he noticed that people gave more weight to things said by the co-founders than when the exact same thing was said by someone else. Since this annoyed him to no end, he decided to explore it more deeply, leading him to a model called SCT®.
Reactions against authority
Taking up authority (or authority being projected onto you) almost always is a trigger into patterns. Those patterns go way back, like so much else they originate in our early childhood. The reaction against the authority is a compromise between safety and connection with your primary caregivers and the fragile autonomy that you are evolving in childhood. These patterns stay with us, and can interfere with trying to get our work done as ‘adults’.
The reaction to authority usually comes in one of two flavors, both of which are a compromise between safety and autonomy: defiance or compliance. Defiance shows up as disobedience or resistance, while compliance refers to behaviors such as accomodating others and going along.
Adult-adult, not parent-child
One way Holacracy brings clarity about authority is by defining explicit roles. That’s the visible side of authority. With Holacracy, leading and following is no longer static, but dynamic. A colleague might lead in one area, because it fits their role, while in another area they need to follow you in one of your roles.
But there is also an invisible side of authority, such as people’s reactions, ways of communicating, and nonverbal behaviors. Once you become aware of the authority subject, you’ll notice that there are very subtle ways in which old patterns show up.
For example when you’re complying with a proposal because you assume your colleague “probably knows better”.
Or making authoritative statements on topics that fall outside of your roles (and therefore authority).
Or keeping quiet when someone makes a proposal, either out of defiance or compliance.
What can you do?
With time and practice, you can begin to recognize your own and others’ defiant and compliant reactions against authority. With awareness comes choice: you can do what you always did (from childhood on), or you can try something different and see what happens. What is even more powerful, is taking this journey together with your colleagues, by sharing your own patterns and developing a shared language to talk about this.
Here are a few questions that you may find helpful as you explore your own relationship to authority:
- What do you find most difficult, leading or following? Are you more often defiant or compliant? (Can be different in different contexts)
- What are triggers for your authority issue? (Verbal or nonverbal cues)?
- What are the symptoms, the cues that tell you you’re having an authority reaction?
- Where can you practice this safely, and try small experiments in doing something different? (Holacracy is a wonderful practice ground for becoming more aware of and weakening the authority issue).