Reflection 66: Doing Better At Work, In Authoritarian Relationships

We live in a culture in which “relationship” tends to be equated with “intimate relationship.” Thus, an array of family and couples therapies and an endless stream of self-help books, teach us how to more constructively interact with our spouse, children and friends. Needless to say, improving the quality of these relationships is a good thing. But our pre-occupation with the intricacies of intimate relationship brings with it this unfortunate side effect: We spend far too little time seeking to understanding how authoritarian relationships operate and how to make these relationships work better.

Why is this omission so important? Because authoritarian relationships are the uncritically accepted norm at work; the place where we spend the most productive hours of the great majority of our days. Moreover, we live in a world in which compete and win, dominate and control are the predominant values. As a result, these authoritarian patterns of interacting – via patriarchy or a bullying parent, for example – are entrenched in many of our intimate relationships as well.

The price we pay for our failure to seriously attend to these relationships is far too high. Our tendency – particularly at work – is to simply accept them as an unfortunate fact of life. With little or no thought or effort invested in making these relationships better, all of us – subordinates and bosses alike – wind up passively accepting all sorts of debilitating consequences.

On the subordinate’s side, these effects are fairly obvious. The prevailing view is that we are, for the most part, at the mercy of the boss. I work for a jerk but what can I do about it. Either make peace with the situation, or leave for a new job – where my new boss, armed with the exact same authoritarian power, might, perhaps, decide to treat me better. In other words, there is no solution, just good luck or bad luck – and, given the realities of the workplace, mostly the latter.

Equally unfortunate – but more subtle and invisible – is the price the boss pays. The prevailing view, in the mainstream culture, is that the boss has a good deal. He can say what he wants and get what he wants. But as Philip Lichtenberg points out in Getting Even, there is no free ride in relationship. The boss’ arbitrary or bullying behavior will inevitably provoke counter-measures, through foot dragging, sullenness, deviousness, or a myriad of other strategies. And, as the subordinate “gets even,” the boss winds up paying a very real psychic and interpersonal price as well.

Moreover, most all bosses are themselves subordinates in their dealings with the next level up in the company’s hierarchy. So failing to handle these relationships more effectively, they will be subject to the same discouraging equation when they are in the down, subordinate position.

The bottom line in all this? Our tendency to unreflectively accept authoritarian relationships as an unpleasant and unchangeable fact of life serves no one. If we are serious about creating more nourishing lives and contributing to a more humane world, we need to do better.


Set forth below are: (1) General considerations that offer a context for working on our authoritarian relationships; and (2) specific guidelines for operating more effectively – as a subordinate and as a boss.

General Considerations

  • In contrast to our intimate relationships, trust is often an unrealistic goal in our authoritarian relationship. Withholding of information, manipulation, outright lying – these sorts of behaviors are far too readily condoned. For this reason, the issue of where set the appropriate boundary is, typically, of much greater importance in authoritarian relationships – for bosses and subordinates alike. Continuing attention to safety is essential.
  • In certain extraordinary situations – where both the boss and the subordinate are committed to a common goal and understand its implications – an authoritarian relationship may evolve into one that is more co-equal and intimate. But these situations uncommon, exceptions to the rule. In the typical authoritarian relationship, the goal needs to be more limited: To create an environment in which common tasks can be attended to in a civil and mutually respectful way.
  • On the other hand, working to make our authoritarian relationships function better does not mean that we should accept them as an inevitable, at work or in any other part of our lives. To the contrary, the larger goal – described in Lichtenberg’s Encountering Bigotry – is to create co-equal and democratic relationships in all areas of living. But even as we do this more transformational work, we need invest our current authoritarian reality – one that has existed for thousands of years – with more decency and respect. Properly conceived, this intermediate work – the subject of the guidelines set forth below – is an invaluable part of this larger change process.

Guidelines for Subordinates

  1. Set appropriate boundaries. Choose an appropriate level of intimacy. Tend to your emotional needs.

Explanation:  Self- protection is job 1. If a boss is unsafe and dangerous, a firm boundary and little or no intimacy is called for. This is how you keep yourself safe. If you make this choice, remember that sharing any emotion – including anger and annoyance – is an act of intimacy. It should only be done if it serves your strategic purposes. Tending to your emotional needs may include techniques such a remembering to breathe, slowing down your communications, and so on.

  1. Express yourself with civility. Engage the boss where he or she is.  Be respectful, understanding and sympathetic to his needs – both practical and emotional.

Explanation: A boss’ bullying, aggressive tone is likely to provoke annoyance, defensiveness, or an emotional shut down. But these reactions perpetuate the fight or flight dynamic that the boss’ attacking behavior invites. And this is the territory in which authoritarian relationships flower. The goal, therefore, is to defuse this fight/flight dynamic by dealing with the substance of the boss’ “request” calmly and with respect.

  1. If, and as, it becomes a realistic possibility, be open and vivid with your thoughts and feelings; forthrightly asking for what you want and need.

Explanation: This is an important step if, over time, you hope to establish a healthier, more egalitarian relationship with the boss. But it needs to be exercised with caution. Absent the rare, truly decent boss, you will first need to clearly establish your value to the organization and, even then, do it judiciously.

  1. Be alive to injustice and indecency, and to the possibility of seeking accountability for it – from yourself and others.

Explanation: Surviving and maintaining viability at work are vitally important goals. But we are people first and workers second. Sometimes you will feel the need to stand up to a bullying boss – to maintain the integrity of your life priorities (decency to self), or to be in solidarity with others. Because you are in an authoritarian relationship, however, you need to understand and be willing to accept potential consequences when such a step is taken.

Guidelines for Bosses

  1. Set appropriate boundaries. Choose an appropriate level of intimacy. Tend to your emotional needs.

Explanation: Given your power, you can often express your anger, frustration and judgment with seeming impunity. Don’t do it. Strive, instead, to communicate your message without sharing extraneous, bullying emotions. Seek to keep interactions emotionally safe by making knowing choices about what to share; and by politely discouraging a subordinate’s inappropriate or unsafe sharing of his or her emotions.

  1. Clearly and forthrightly ask for what you want and need but, at the same time, express yourself with respect and civility.

Explanation: As the boss it is all too easy to avoid a difficult conversation; to stay silent rather than asking for what you want and need. Doing so, however, reduces the possibility for constructive dialogue and, with it, a healthier relationship and more satisfactory solutions. At the same time you might, in a tense conversation, become terse, strident or judgmental. Your goal should be to deliver a clear message but to do with respect and civility.

  1. Listen fully to your subordinate. Attend as well to her nonverbal cues. Seek to understand her feelings. Help her to feel fully heard.

Explanation: A person who feels fully listened is more likely to receive your message in a non-defensive way and, therefore, to engage in constructive problem solving. So attend fully to the content of the subordinate’s message, nonverbal as well as verbal. And remember, hearing well isn’t enough. You also need to let him know that he has, indeed, been heard and understood.

  1. If the subordinate’s reaction is emotional, strive to remain open. If a breakdown in communication occurs, strive to do the necessary repair work.

Explanation: Your subordinate may well react emotionally; with anger, defensiveness, sullen silence, or tears. You are best served by being patient with such a reaction. Tend to these emotions first. If they can be soothed, the chances for a constructive dialogue will be greatly improved.

  1. Be accepting of areas of difference. Seek compromises that accommodate difference. Failing that, be clear about consequences.

Explanation: Dictating the result is seldom optimal. Morale is likely to suffer. Better to seek a workable solution that accommodates difference. But if that isn’t possible, be clear about what you want and the consequences that will follow if there is a failure to follow through.