a policeman shaking hands with protesters

Why Unquestioned Obedience to Authority is Dangerous

We all follow rules. Most of us don’t know why if we are being honest with ourselves. We just know that we were essentially forced to be compliant starting in the family structure. This followed us to the school system and later in the work environment. Some rules are written down, but a good majority are unwritten. We follow the written rules because of the threat of punishment. We follow the unwritten rules because we are expected to comply with these rules because we can be socially ostracized from where we try to find belonging.

Some systems and organizations are quite hypocritical in this regard. A company will declare that it supports innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, but the expectation is compliance when it comes to practice. So much so that entire departments are created based on this principle. It would be good to define compliance while we are at it. Compliance is following along with what others are doing regardless of personal beliefs. When a company can shut off one’s livelihood (being a primary source of one’s income), it can act as an authority figure enforcing written rules. If an employee deems a rule to be inequitable, they have no choice but to comply or be punished by losing their job. Organizations can also enforce unwritten rules and call it “culture.” If a person decides to independently think and not follow the norms of the organization, they are simply not a “culture fit.”

The Darkside of Community

Every person yearns for a sense of belonging. It feels like organizations seem to manipulate this need in the form of pressure to conform to the ideals of those in authority. We conform because we care what other people think about us. Not doing and being as everyone else comes with the fear of being ostracized by the group. This is the shadow side of community we never really talk about.

I was listening to a book about community. According to the author, I couldn’t get through the entire book because I didn’t agree with the exclusivity needed to create a community. To create a community, we must also define who cannot be in the community. With contemplation around this idea, any community has become a form of separation masquerading as unity. An apartment community is gated off so that people who are not part of the community are not allowed in. People find community in their political affiliations. To say that you are part of one party finds like-minded people but excludes people with different thoughts. The same thing can be said about “the community” that countless companies try cultivating for their employees. If you are a part of this organization, you must follow these rules and act a certain way to belong.

Abuse of Power

Unquestioned obedience eventually leads to an abuse of power. We’ve seen it in just about every aspect of life. Just take a look at any rebellion that has happened in our history. The cause of having to revolt in such a way was too many years of power going unquestioned. It was the German citizens who saw their Jewish brothers and sisters as equals but were too afraid to say or do anything for fear of disapproval from “their own kind.”

It’s been proven that people will knowingly say things they don’t believe in the face of authority if it means they won’t be punished for it. It’s easy for authority to increasingly oppress a person if they know that their deeds go unquestioned. Ask some children about their parents. This imbalance in power only causes harm to the people who suffer through it. Sure, you can quit, but some people don’t feel like they are fortunate to have that option. Thus unquestioned loyalty to authority can be dehumanizing.

Diversity of Thought

Rules are put in place for efficiency. However, it’s not very common for people to consider the cost. Unquestioned obedience can cause an abuse of power. If gone unchecked for too long, people will not have the courage to stand up against something that is unjust. Rules help keep the peace, but the rules should only be created so that one knows when they need to be broken. People must be allowed to use their critical thinking and belief systems to challenge norms that don’t serve them.

Instead of adding rules, organizations must cultivate an environment where people are free to belong and not belong simultaneously. Group members can follow the norms set out in the name of collaboration, but individuals should also be empowered to question the status quo. This is what is meant by having diversity within a company. Diversity of skin color, age, or sex means very little if people are expected to be the same mentally when a prospective employee receives the job. What’s the point of having diverse experiences if they cannot be expressed? Managers, teachers, and parents alike shouldn’t feel threatened when someone questions their opinions. If anything, it should serve as an opportunity to expand upon it.