How well do you deal with authority? The 4 questions to ask yourself

By Yvette McKenzie | 14 September 2018

It’s often one of the questions that managers will throw in at the end of an interview, “How well do you deal with authority?” According to Job Skills, the good news is, most supervisors believe that some amount of authority-questioning is natural, intelligent and progressive – it’s only when a candidate steps completely out of line in their approach (think aggressive, insulting language or going behind a manager’s back), that alarm bells will start to ring.

Is it a “bad” idea to question authority, or is it a good corporate tactic?

Some questioning of authority is good, so how do you know when to draw the line? How well do you deal with authority in the first place?

In just about every job, unless you are a sole trader, there is normally a “pecking order” – someone is higher than someone else, or one team is responsible for the actions and direction of another person or group of people. The higher up the chain of command you go, the more authority you should have. Bear in mind that in almost any job, even the top boss is answerable to someone, even if it’s the board or the company shareholders.

boss pointing

How well do you deal with authority?

At some point in our lives (if not every single day!) we all have to deal with authority. How well do you cope? Here are 4 important questions to ask yourself to help you “unpack” your relationship to authority.

Question 1: What am I seeking to gain from this relationship?

With every relationship that’s meaningful in life, we have lots to gain and plenty to lose. Relationships are always about “give and take” – it’s when one party is doing all the taking that connections become strained.

Think about the benefits of dealing with a particular authority figure in your life. The more mature we get, the more we realise that “bucking the system” unnecessarily will only cause us more pain – such as arguing with a policeman who is about to give you a ticket.

Speaking Up blog posted an article called, Dealing with people in authority – effective meeting skills. The post suggests, “If you find it hard to get a word in and put your point across, as everybody is talking on top of you (believe me I have been there!) watch body language, so that you can tell when somebody finishes a sentence. They have to pause at one time, and you have to come in then.”

Learn respectful tactics for dealing with people, watch your words and body language and ask yourself what you may gain (or lose) if the relationship with a particular authority figure goes on or off track. Weigh up the positives and negatives.

Question 2: How has this working connection changed over time?

Business blogger Bryce Johannes from Quora seems to have a combative experience with authority – something that many of us carry on from childhood or early teens. He says, “The world is ruled by and for the elite. They have unique opportunities on a scale completely out of line with their reward for work.”

Johannes is not alone - many people feel this way. Some of us think that allowing an authority figure to “rule over us” can be disruptive to the way we see ourselves as an employee. Johannes says, “Authority becomes part of the boot keeping you down, transferring the benefits of your hard work to others whose sense of entitlement creates an enormous imbalance.”

brainstorming session at work

If your working relationship with an authority figure has changed over time, examine the reasons why and don’t put up with behaviour that will not serve you in the long run. Having said that, make sure you consider your options carefully and aim to rise above any petty issues when you can. Work makes up only a portion of having a happy, fulfilling life.

Question 3: What am I contributing to this scenario or situation?

It takes two to tango in every working scenario. When dealing with an authority figure, think about how your attitude, words and actions are contributing.

Tanvi Gautam is the Managing Partner of an HR consulting and training firm. She suggests learning to read between the lines. “Each situation must be assessed on its own merit,” she says. “Be aware of the larger cultural context.” In some company cultures or workplaces, a direct confrontation might make matters worse. “Before you respond, remember you need not attend every argument or challenge you are invited to. Differentiate between irritants and actual threats.

Take the highroad where you can and learn not to sweat the small stuff. Sometimes authority figures who seem to be overly harsh or threatening are simply misinformed or being pressured from above.

Question 4: How can I listen more – then act?

WikiHow has some great methods for dealing with people in authority. They say, “Realise that the person in authority was in your position once. All modern-day authority figures were kids, and people of little authority at one time, and all of them have been talked to by someone they saw as a superior or authority figure.”

Listening a little goes a long, long way. Far too quickly we feel the need to jump in and offer our own opinions on how something should be done. When dealing with someone in authority, learn when to step back, and when to step up.

boss listening to employees

“(Authority figures) have also suffered the awkward conversation, and they know how you feel when talking to authority,” says WikiHow. “Most will go easy on you because of this. Remember, they want to either ask you a simple question or give you some helpful advice - they don't necessarily want to scare you.”

Learning to deal effectively with people of authority is an essential business skill that everyone can benefit from. Taking some time to examine your relationship with figures of authority can be a valuable exercise that may see your career reach new heights.

If you’re interested in more of our articles on career advice, be sure to check out our library of career articles here on SkillsTalk.

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