How we respond to authority, and what it means to business success

Our battle with authority starts when we’re born. It starts with our parents, our relatives and older siblings, and later extends to our teachers, bosses and government. How our early relationships develop inform those that follow – shattered bonds and broken paradigms create indelible senses of mistrust, whilst strong family units provide enduring armour against the world.  

An easy example is divorce. Children with divorced parents are expected to be more intolerant of authority, naturally recalcitrant, and disillusioned with the assumed power status of authority figures. In a nutshell, they’re sceptical that any position of authority is self-evident. It must be prodded and tested to see if it truly holds up to a standard.

But children with divorced parents are also expected to suffer early on – in education, obedience and in their ability to fit the mould. It’s not until much later that these shortcomings can become advantages, and vice versa. A strong family unit may prepare a child for life’s early challenges, but it can also create a state of expectation and conformity – the assumption that the world is ordered, generally pleasant and just. Happiness isn’t exactly a detrimental trait to have in business – but a refusal to see the bad for addiction to the good is.

The point is that neither upbringing is good nor bad, but each has huge implications for how we respond to and grow within business. Our early experiences with authority, social background and cultural influences fuel our responses to hierarchy. The consequences of untempered disobedience are naturally brutal, but so too are those for unquestioning loyalty.  

Numerous research has been conducted into how we each accept power. In the 1960s and 70s, a Dutch social psychologist named Geert Hofstede developed a theory on cultural dimensions (i.e. how different cultures communicate and operate within business). One of the dimensions of his theory is power distance index, or PDI. This is the extent to which less powerful members of institutions accept the unequal distribution of power. Some countries fair better than others. In Europe, we have a relatively low PDI, whilst it’s high in many Asian countries.

Countries that have high PDI are found to have communication issues in business. Deference occurs to a fault – employees blindly obey the commands of a superior, even when they know them to be at error. In such places, the distribution of power is accepted as an unwavering fact. As one man may be empirically stronger than another, so can one be more powerful and deserving of respect.

PDI shows us that how we respond to and perceive authority directly affects our ability to conduct business. The trick is to know when an individual is deserving of respect, and when their expectation of it relies on an institutional construct (which in business takes the form of managerial titles and wall divided offices).

Recalcitrance and deference are both positive and negative, depending on their context and execution. It’s fair to say that disobedient kids receive a raw end of the deal in this regard. Their inability to succeed is often presumed from their inability to obey, but that’s certainly not the case. Compulsively following a leader means we’ll never become the leader. Entrepreneurs are outliers that don’t always fit a mould. If we’re never taught to rethink our world and question the truth against what’s taught, then it’s likely we’ll never see an alternate path.