(A bit about Authoritarian power, Authority, Autorizations and wegetables.)

He should show me some respect! The young man in the oversized parka is shouting at the police officer. Behind the officer is another young man in a similarly sized jacket. The hormone pumped biceps and the ownership of the popular jacket are the obvious symbols of something – but what? 

The meaning of the word respect, differs depending on who you ask. Ask the young man, and he’d probably say things that tell us that, to him, respect is synonymous with fear. Don’t f* mess with me, he’d say.  

But respect doesn’t just have street value. Respect is topping the list of things we value in most other places, aswell.  

But why is respect so important to us?  

If we were to ask the young man again, he’d probably say something along the lines of “I just want him to show me his respect!”, but he would not have the reflective capabilities to “see behind” what he’s saying. Without considering one’s own thoughts, values or ideas, that’s impossible. A possible, but hardly popular explanation, could be: 

  •  A panic-like search for appreciation 
  •  Lots of anxiety and fear 
  •  Self-protection 

Respect is important at work too, but luckily work life isn’t street life. We use quite different terms when talking about respect.  

The typical 40+ male manager in the office will probably explain himself and his desire for respect saying things like: 

  • I’m happy when I’m respected for my skills and what I do 
  • People show me respect by being interested in why I made the choices I did.
  • Respect is a way for people to appreciate me as a person 

A specialist, for example a software tester, might say: 

  • Developers show respect of my work, when they listen to my findings and we work together 
  •  I feel happy when my manager asks for my view on quality 
  • I’m respected when I’m finding important bugs in the software. 

Let’s take power and authority into consideration – two words I often hear from people when we discuss respect. These words have similar meanings to people. 

Without going into a long debate including philosophers like Foucault, Marx, Bourdieu, or Machiavelli, I’d postulate, that respect and power, no matter whether they are said on the streets in tough parts of the city, or in the office building with it’s well ordered workplace, exists on the grounds of the same fundamental needs for appreciation and safety.  

People just have different (more-or-less refined) understandings of self-understanding and politeness to help them when they reach out to the world to find that respect.

What is it that we do to get the appreciation and safety that we are reaching for?

I find that we tend to do a lot of hops, skips, and jumps, some positive, some negative, but all to remain in control of our lives and to ensure the appreciation which lies in being followed and in belonging to a group.  

In the pursuit of these things, however, we often forget that the appreciation, being followed by others, or the feeling of safety, is not something we can “catch” and then control.  

In psychodynamic terms we have a term for the appreciation and safety we desire: Authorization. In that thinking, appreciation and safety is not something we have, rather it’s a process flowing to us from people around us. In other words: If you’re a manager, forget the idea of getting authority through management and control. Rather, it will come from employees and colleagues on your level, authorizing you to be their manager in the daily office life.  

Thus, we can say that leadership – even management – is not a position or a role, but a process, and being followed by the people around you, happens because they authorize you to lead them.  

We have a saying in Danish: You can force the horse to the crib, but you can’t force it to drink. Without the authorization from others, you can jump and skip, scream and shout, but it doesn’t give you neither respect nor power. In the best cases, threatening people might give you an illusion of respect and power, but it will be like junk food: It may taste good right there, it may seem to work (make you feel full), but after a short while, you’ve burnt the energy… the difference between respect/power and authorization/authority is the same. The sustainable is in the latter. 

Become what you eat 

Classic Danish Christmas dinner at Restaurant Kronborg

Most people know quite well what gives you good energy, and what is bad for your body. But I sometimes meet people who can’t see that very difference between power and authority when being and working with others.

People who know me well know how much I like fat, sugar and salt. My wife says this: “Ole, all that greasy food, it’s just so much you!” But that doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to eat healthy, or that I don’t (sometimes) follow the advice of the health board. 

Transferring that thinking to the workplace, it means that we can find ourselves in situations, where we want to (or sometimes have to) “eat the junk food”, be authoritative and use power, but the thing is that to avoid those things to give what I might call “organizational blood clots or heart attacks”, the main ingredient of what you do, must be of a different and more healthy kind.  

This, of course, leads to the question: What is healthy organizational food? 

Your own food-plan 

The short answer to the question is: It’s filled with relations. 

Relations are the stable and sustainable calories in the organization. They contain fibres, proteins and vitamins. They are the healthy stuff – like vegetables. 

What this means is that it is through the way you work and care for your relations, that you can build the groundwork for the appreciation and following that gives you the authorization to lead others. 

There are many types of relations, just like vegetables. And our needs are different, even when it comes to the vegetables, vitamins, fibers, etc. that we need. In the same way, there are differences between the relational elements you need to grow and care for. So, to avoid just shooting in the blind and perhaps only be right in 50% of the cases, an exploration of your relational dietary needs, is worth doing. A value question to ask yourself is: Which “relational vegetables” do you need?