How to lead people with authority problems
A lot of people have authority problems.
Like me, for example. I have massive authority problems. (That’s a big reason why I work for myself.) It’s quite possible that I’m more skeptical of authority than anybody else you’ve met.
Here’s where my authority problems come from: I want to decide for myself what to think.
No part of me is willing to be force-fed or pacified into accepting the status quo. Even if accepting the status quo were to my advantage (which it rarely is), doing so usually only reinforces social constructs that completely limit what’s possible.
The status quo often establishes someone else’s power at my own expense.
In a way … you can’t really blame me. ;)
Many authority problems come from well-founded skepticism
In a world where people are constantly manipulating each other to their own ends, you can’t blame a person for having trust issues with someone who’s trying to control them.
It’s reasonable to be skeptical of the motives of people in authority.
People in authority are people … and people are entirely untrustworthy.
Except when it comes to one thing.
You can trust everyone to be self-interested
Everyone acts out of self-interest.
Some dude will cut you off in traffic if it helps him get where he’s going quicker. That’s someone acting out of self-interest in a way that negatively impacts you. But it’s not always so unpleasant.
A lady at the grocery store will choose the freshest, least-bruised tomato—and why wouldn’t she? That’s beneficial to her. And it doesn’t harm me at all.
Heck, my husband will do something nice for me, like bring me a hot cup of coffee at my desk, because he knows he stands to gain from my happiness.
Maybe you can’t trust people … but you can trust them to act out of that self-interest.
Often self-interest means keeping people who aren’t in authority in their place—as an underling.
Therefore, authority problems abound.
How can you lead people with authority problems?
I am far from the only person with authority problems.
If you ever find yourself in a role with authority, chances are you’ll deal with people who default to being unhappy about you being over them.
You might not believe me from everything I’ve just said, but it is totally possible to gain the respect and trust of these people.
Here are some tips that I use in my own approach to authority. I do my best to treat everyone I’m in authority over this way—not just with people who I expect to have authority problems. ;)
1. Admit to self-interest.
OK, this might seem counterintuitive. But bear with me.
If someone takes issue with your authority, they already believe you’re out for yourself. Admitting to this can go really far in your credibility with them. If you don’t, you’ll seem like a manipulative faker.
If people who had managed me had admitted their self-interest to me, we would have had a way better relationship.
Instead, I’ve watched just about every manager I’ve had pretend to be doing things for my benefit when I knew it was for their own.
This made me think they thought I was a sucker, ready to believe any lie they fed me. I felt belittled—like they believed they were successfully manipulating me.
Admitting to self-interest takes confidence and integrity—something that will be extremely refreshing to people worried about being manipulated.
2. Don’t box them in based on role.
People often deal with being underestimated or miscategorized by authority figures.
Be careful about boxing people in based on assumptions. Get to know them before deciding what they’re capable of.
People with authority problems know that those in charge tend to rely on cultural norms. Making generalizations based on job title, gender, age, race, etc. can destroy your ability to gain these peoples’ trust and respect.
For example, most managers I’ve had have treated me as though I thrive in minutia-oriented, detail-heavy work. I can do this, but I despise it. I’m not sure if it was because I was a woman (often seen as more detail-oriented and not a big-picture thinker) … but I rarely ever got a chance to demonstrate my strategic-thinking skills and got boxed out of many situations I would have thrived in because my managers assumed.
Nothing I said could prove otherwise to them, and most paid too little attention to my work to give me credit for the strategic thinking I did do.
Give people a chance to demonstrate their abilities to you before you jump the gun and decide what they’re good at for them. They may feel entrapped by your small-mindedness if you don’t.
3. Don’t tell them what to do or think.
People in authority often stand to gain when those under them accept whatever they dish out. Whether or not it’s good for them.
Those with authority problems know this, and are keenly attuned to anything they see as strong-arming.
Instead of telling people what to do, first tell them what you’re hoping to accomplish and when. Let them come up with ways to help you accomplish it.
Have some discussion and weigh the pros and cons of their ideas. They might pitch you on the same approach you would have given them—or even a better one. And they’ll feel empowered by getting the chance to demonstrate their thinking to you.
Some people under you may not come through on this, and they’ll need you to more clearly explain what they should do. But don’t assume that right off the bat. Let them say “I don’t know” before assuming they don’t know.
Become a more trustworthy leader
If you’re struggling to gain someone’s trust, it might be that you’re dealing with someone with authority problems … or you might need to become more trustworthy.
Some peoples’ trust is just going to be harder to win than others’. Have integrity and give your people a chance to demonstrate their strengths. When you exhibit those attributes, you become the type of leader that someone with even the worst authority issues can respect.