The Authority Hangover

Hierarchical authority is a hold-over from post-war industrialization, an artifact from a world that no longer exists. It has specific and limited utility in organizations today. As a managerial construct, hierarchal authority allows us to move information and knowledge. It allows us to manage processes, accountabilities, and decision-making responsibilities. It may even be necessary to effectively coordinate actions and transactions. But when it comes to having spontaneous and direct conversations, the authority granted by hierarchical position hinders the kind of influence we would hope to have–as leaders and with leaders.

The nature of our influence is altered in the presence of hierarchical authority.

In the past, if you were an executive in a management role, you were the de facto leader. Period. Authority was the silent partner in the dynamic tension underlying the command and control culture. You could expect and count on people’s deference to your hierarchical authority.

But today, hierarchy as a managerial construct actually has a tendency to inhibit leadership. Witness the unnecessary triangulations and hallway conversations peppered with complaints and blaming that are endemic in hierarchical organizations. What continues to be a useful framework for coordinating action can have serious unintended consequences to effective leadership.

As leaders, it’s up to us to notice the “authority hangover” whenever and wherever it occurs.

The Path of Good Intentions…

Sometimes the person with the authority hangover is us. I recently coached one young vice president, a talented subject matter expert who had come up through the ranks and was legitimately promoted. Without any awareness to the fact that he was now perceived as “the boss”, he would jump right in to “fix” problems—even if they were the responsibility of individuals several layers below him in the organizational hierarchy. In essence, coming from a good place with the best of intentions, he would step onto the playing field in the middle of the game and show a player exactly how to kick the ball. He was blind to his “managing” versus his “leading”. This habit of intervening as a manager generated a lot of negative feedback. On one hand, people treated him with deference, while indirectly harboring resentment toward his “micromanaging”. He had inadvertently let his focus shift from influencing where the game was going to where the ball was. And he was blind to how his position of authority was marginalizing others from contributing to the game consistent with their role.

The authority hangover has us all suffer.

The minute we behave like a manager, we miss engaging in what the situation needs from us as a leader. We are no longer being responsible for the team, the game plan, and the organization.

The dangers of being blind to the influence of hierarchical rank in these moments?

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that, at this point, individuals of a lower rank in a hierarchical relationship will hold back from sharing what they know or what they think and defer decision-making to us as their higher-ranked colleague. When people start to look at us as “the boss”, rather than as a “co-worker” with whom they’re trying to coordinate, they suffer–and we suffer–from the authority hangover.

From this point on, we’re not seeing how people may be telling us what we want to hear–instead of what we need to know. We end up not hearing everything we need to hear in order to lead. And, in spite of our best intentions, we get vilified as micromanagers.

Curing The Authority Hangover

The problem of authority can show up anywhere anytime. It’s most challenging when the person we’re talking with communicates as if they’re in a hierarchical relationship–and we as leaders try to cure the hangover by communicating as if we’re in a peer-to-peer relationship.

I’ve noticed even in my own conversations how this dynamic can lead to a breakdown in the integrity of the relationship. When I’m relating to someone as a peer and they’re relating to me as a hierarchical figure and we’re trying to have a conversation, we’re not even in the same conversation. We’re operating in two disparate contexts.

There is a cure. Maintain hierarchical forms of communication for their managerial utility. Facilitate peerful communications for their leadership utility.

Like the young vice president eventually did, we can remedy authority hangovers by using a combination of peerful and hierarchical communications. For example, the next time we see a problem we want to fix directly ourselves, we can choose instead to talk with our direct reports about what we see, our concerns, and the need for them to take action. We can encourage them to communicate with the people directly involved (who know the history and context), assess the situation, influence the players, and report back. From there, we can engage in the broader systemic questions about whether this “problem” (if it is one) is occurring elsewhere, why it is happening, and what we need to take care of in this regard for the organization as a whole.

The bottom-line consequences if we rely exclusively on a deference to authority to lead? Lack of innovation and commitment, trapped capacity in the organization, low morale, and a dearth of effective communications in all directions.

It’s clearly up to those of us who possess hierarchical authority by role definition to make certain that it is not the ONLY context in which people are relating to us.