More Thoughts on Authority

A colleague wrote today on our list serve, prompting the following thoughts:


I liked the thoughts you offered in your note below. Thanks for taking
the time to share them. Your comment: “Because of human reactions to authority, it is easier to muck up communication than to get it right”,
caught my eye and intrigued me. When you have time, I wonder if you’d be
kind enough to elaborate on that and say more?

Thanks & Regards,


Hi Bob,

Thanks for the interest. My work is grounded in Bowen and Friedman’s family systems theory (as applied to organizations), attachment theory’s implications for EQ, and a mix of OD theory, with a big debt to Kurt Lewin and John Wallen, as well as others (including my father, Robert P. Crosby, who lead the way into the applied integration of the above which I continue). As such, authority relationships are at the heart of my interventions. I view hierarchy as a very sound organizing structure, which if not managed in a mature fashion, is also the source of much dysfunction and lost productivity.

What do I mean by mature? The following is the fifth of five principles I describe in my book, Fight, Flight, Freeze. I coach on this (and the other four principles) one on one, through intact work team interventions, through whole systems interventions (large group planning sessions), and through experiential learning using t-group methodology, at every level of my client systems (preferably with the layers and roles mixed in the same learning environment). For high performance, people must learn to manage authority rationally, as a necessary role with specific decision-making authority, not as an ego dilemma.

Principle #5: Personal Authority in the Workplace includes the ability to relate to all other human beings as peers, including superiors and subordinates, while simultaneously respecting, clarifying, and supporting the positional authority, yours and theirs, essential to organizing work.

This is easier said than done. Most either overfunction (micro-manage) or underfunction in functional leadership roles, and fail to understand their emotional impact on their subordinates and the larger system. Friedman outlined a nice model of the consequences, which he called the 5 symptoms of a chronically anxious system:

1. Reactivity (people succumb to the impulses of their primitive brain, either tending to fight – often covertly – or for the vast majority, tending towards flight or protective behavior, such as keeping one’s mouth shut, or being very careful about one says)

2. Displaced blame (pointing fingers at individuals and groups)

3. Quick fix mentality (a plague…as Friedman puts it, “you can’t make a bean grow by pulling on it”)

4. Herding (people are more concerned with their rights than their responsibilities)

5. Lack of self-differentiated leadership (this is a concept which requires more thought, but again a simple Friedman analogy is that one is either a step-up transformer in the systems emotional field, adding counter-productive stress, or one is a step-down transformer, creating a calm focused tone)

People at any level failing to manage their own emotionality add to dysfunction. The higher up, the bigger the impact. Fortunately, EQ can be learned. Unfortunately, it is under-appreciated as a performance variable, or taught with traditional classroom methods, when the critical learning must come through live interaction, in which the practitioner must put their skin in the game as a leader-learner.

In sum, in our earliest pre-cognitive relationships we all learn patterns of interacting with and being in positions of authority, and if we don’t learn a mature and responsible approach as an adult, we will live our lives reacting, blaming, and reliving our earliest patterns. Translated into a large organization, the result is a lot of needless drama, crushed spirits, and lost productivity.


I hope that provides some clarity.



About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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