Dealing with Authority Bias – A Blind Spot

In the old days of the airlines, the captain of an aircraft was the king. His commands could not be doubted or challenged not even by the co-pilot who was second in command. Even if the co-pilot noticed an oversight he could not openly point that out to his/her captain. Sometimes it was out of fear. Sometimes it was out of respect. Such a behavior caused many fatal accidents to take place. For example, when a very well respected captain of a Russian (former USSR) plane allowed his teenage son to take control of the plane his co-pilot lacked the power or the courage to point out the obvious flaw in decision making. The young child committed some mistake in controlling the plane, which lead to a fatal accident killing everyone on board. Such a behavior of blindly following authority, termed as ‘Authority Bias‘ was rampant in the airline industry.

Since this behavior was discovered, nearly every airline has instituted something called ‘Crew Resource Management‘ (CRM), which coaches pilots and their crews to discuss any reservations they have openly and quickly. This was a very creative way to slowly deprogram the authority bias. Needless to say, CRM has contributed more to flight safety in the past twenty years than any technical advances have.

Many companies are light years away from such foresight. Especially at risks are firms with domineering CEOs and JV partners. In such cases, employees are more likely to keep their opinions and judgments to themselves and not express or exchange their thoughts, observations and opinions openly — much to the detriment of the business. Authorities routinely crave recognition. So they constantly find ways to reinforce their decisions and their status. Slowly this sort of demand on employees leads to what is known as ‘groupthink‘ or ‘hivethink‘, which is perhaps one of the most dangerous phenomenon to emerge in any organization.

One of my clients was suffering from this ‘Authority Bias‘. They were almost bleeding to death. They had had a domineering JV partner, who was the technology provider to the firm. They would simply not allow anyone to have their say in anything. They always had their way. They blamed their partner for being lazy and undisciplined and what not. As a result, employees just closed themselves from doing anything on their own. They actively disengaged from work. Performance and profitability nose-dived to the point where the domineering JV partner decided to quit.

Soon after they were gone, performance rose to unexpected levels and stayed there. Productivity improved by more than 10 times. The organization saw profits for the first time in five years of their operations.

And they managed to survive.

But how does one check for the blind spot of ‘Authority Bias’ in an organization?

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6 thoughts on “Dealing with Authority Bias – A Blind Spot

  1. In the US there is less an issue of authority bias than power brokering — the wielding of power against others and rendering them unable to contribute. A huge waste of energy on both sides of the coin. The client example you gave was more a matter of the latter than authority bias (which rests in the hands of the ‘recipient’ to grant).

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  2. Paula,
    While I see what you are getting at, I tend to disagree. My only real experience in an organization was when I was teaching production management for designer. In that role, I heard an amazing amount of grumbling that went completely silent at the meetings. In the presence of admins it was much easier for staff to ” to keep their opinions and judgments to themselves and not express or exchange their thoughts, observations and opinions openly .

    Since I didn’t at first know the culture – an probably becuase I tend to disruptive – I did at first exchange observations and opinions. I learned fast enough there was no advantage to doing so. Just kept my head down and hoped I wasn’t noticed pretty quickly.

    “how does one check for the blind spot of ‘Authority Bias’ in an organization”

    Consider a survey given to management and then a follow up anonymous survey to their equals or the people who report directly to them:

    What were the five most important decisions you made in the last six months?

    For decision 1,2,3,4,5 what is your guess as to your equals and direct reports feeling about your decision. A. Strongly agree. B. Agree. C, Disagree. D. Strongly Disagree. E. Didn’t care. F: I have no idea.

    Compare with a survey of the staff with
    For decision 1, 2, etc.
    Did you A. Strongly agree. B. Agree. C. Disagree D. Strongly Disagree. E Didn’t care.

    Consider: a survey in the following form:

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  3. Paula: Thanks for the distinction. Yet, I’m unclear if the authority bias includes the authority figure’s own self-perception, thus triggering the power brokering behaviours of a domineering know-it-all who intentionally excludes rather than includes others in the decision-making process. So, while Michael was free to express himself, the power brokering may have signalled that an authority bias was in play.

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  4. Leave it to Dan to ‘catch’ the fine details (which I was mulling as I wrote my response). But it actually circles back to something else that I was watching — it’s not authority bias once everyone is ‘aware’ of it: http://www.showusyourclips.com/language-as-a-window-into-human-nature-an-rsa-animate-on-the-3-types-of-relationships/

    The trick is that someone has to make it explicit…which Michael did (as likely many had before). They were just all going along with the ‘culpable denial’ of the leadership.

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