Humans and Complying With Authority

Complying with authority, which means accepting orders or guidance from person(s) authorized to do so, is difficult for most humans. Why does obedience, the blind compliance to an authority figure, feel so uncomfortable, hard and even demeaning to most adults?

From infancy, babies instinctively “know” that their survival and wellbeing is dependent upon their parents and thus must comply with their commands. The “authority” title is later expanded from the parents to babysitters, teachers, coaches and others. It is often hard for some children to accept the increasing list of “authority figures”. Some become resistant and even defiant toward additional members of the “in charge” class.

As children mature, acquire greater knowledge and skills and become more autonomous, they may exhibit resistance to feeling subservient to those “in charge”. Adults may also feel that being “bossed” by their superiors is demeaning and relegates them to a lower level of worth. The privilege of adulthood comes with the illusion of mastery of one’s life and thus creates discomfort when this autonomy is unappreciated or compromised.

In adulthood, the acceptance of authority is conditional. In the work environment it is established through the hierarchy of the organization. However, it cannot be maintained unless it is accompanied by consideration and respectful treatment by one’s superiors. Validation, affirmation and praise by figures of authority is needed for workers to take pride in their work and be more productive.

A 2015 study conducted in Britain by the Social Market Foundation in conjunction with The University of Warwick Center for Competitive Advantages in the Global Economy discovered that small gestures such as giving employees snacks and drinks or showing them a 10-minute comedy clip, increased productivity by 12-20%. Attentiveness to employees, respect and consideration led to workers’ greater happiness and increased acceptance of authority.

The need to be respected does not only apply to the work environment. In my Psychology practice I have heard numerous stories of unappreciated employees, spouses, parents or friends and witnessed the hurtful psychological and physical impact these emotions have exacted upon them. The motto I developed, “We need to matter- not to shatter” holds true for all of us in our relationships with mates, friends, employers, children, neighbors, family members and others. Once we are acknowledged, treated respectfully and fairly and feel valued, we are more likely to accept authority gracefully and be sensitive to lead others with positive energy and respect.

Reconsider compliance with authority:

  • Accept that all humans need to know that they are worthy and valued to feel secure and live up to their potential.
  • Validate those to whom you report as well as those whom you supervise and your peers for their unique gifts.
  • Affirm your superiors for their leadership and experience and your charges for their contributions and skills.
  • Validate your mate daily for his/her essence, thoughts, feelings or actions.
  • Remember that respecting others as you wish to be respected – alters “authority” and “subservience” into equal human connections.

 

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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