Respect Whose Authority?


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


    I could write this in the context of my military experience and it would read much the same way. The only difference being that the military makes an effort (even it isn’t always successful) to move authority figures around until they find a fit (e.g. an officer very good at Administrative leadership will not be placed in a combat leadership position if at all possible, etc.). If no fit can be found, or if the person is just a very bad leader, they tend to have their career sidelined (not promoted, stuck in back end roles, etc.) unless they have some healthy political sponsorship (and even that isn’t a guarantee, since sponsorship attaches, so if the sponsored officer makes a mess of things, that blows back on the sponsoring officer).

    That said, I’ve had some very good officers and non-coms who understood authority & power, and some horrible ones who could not command authority and just fell back on the power of the rank and position. The difference in their command efficacy was night & day.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      I just finished reading George MacDonald Fraser’s McAuslan stories. Fraser is by far best known for his Flashman novels. The McAuslan stories are completely different, and excellent. They are semi-autobiographical stories about Fraser’s experiences as a junior officer in a Highland regiment after WWII. I bring this up because one of the stories, about when McAuslan was court martialed, is as good an illustration as I have seen of the point you make, when a newly minted corporal gives McAuslan what starts out as a joke and turns into an order. Highly recommended.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I’ll check that out tonight- I’m cleaning a library with a totally different supervisor.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I’ll have to dig it up. I always enjoy authors who give an authentic perspective on military life. Authors who never served tend to be obvious if they haven’t done their homework &/or had a vet proofread it.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          They were originally published in three volumes, but are currently available both in print and ebook packaged together as The Complete McAuslan.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      That’s a great example. It is a difference between night and day. My dissertation director, for instance, was tough as nails, but she had more of an impact on my mental development and work habits than anyone I’ve ever worked under. A good leader can put you through your paces day in and day out and it’s worthwhile. A bad one makes any exercise seem pointless.Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    Your bathroom inspections reminded me of the time I read a COE contract an old employer had. It defined in great detail how bathrooms were to be cleaned, defined cleaners, results, etc. The inspector actually used the “dust in an area no one cares about” as one of his approvals/certification that we were doing our job.

    I just checked our bathroom stalls. Seems our cleaning contract address the specific issue you mention. Ours are free of dust.

    And I believe it’s “authoritah”

    Just do your job, as Reggie wants, and maybe after a while, he’ll ease up and assault some woman and finally get fired.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think there is always going to be some struggle between employers and employees and control and what are big deals vs. small deals and in the eyes of whom. Some employers just like exerting as much control as possible. In my mind, worker’s rights are really about the providing of balance.

    The issue I’ve noticed is that a lot of employers have strong ideas about “X activity should take Y time to complete.” Now I don’t think it is wrong for employers to have these ideas but what they seem to forget is that it might take a newer employee longer for the first few times on a particular task as they get used to it. Or, the employer has been so far away from doing a particular task (because it gets assigned to underlings) that the employer forgets how long it really does to complete that task.

    As to authority, the Bay Area is home to plenty of current and former worker co-ops where the employees are also owners. Some succeed and and succeed well like Rainbow Grocery. Others fail because of outsider forces. Others fail because of a lack of management and nothing gets done or delegated well. I don’t know what separates the first from the third categories of worker’s co-ops.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      I think it boils down to how well such a place practices the idea that a business is a democracy up to a point, then it has to fall back on the hierarchy. Where that point is depends on a lot on attitudes across the board. Misreading those attitudes and placing the point in the wrong spot results in failure.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        That’s a good point.

        Another thing I have been thinking about is employee perks and morale. Some places just have high attrition and demoralization as features, not bugs. My girlfriend and many of her friends have MBAs. They also tend to work for tech companies or started tech companies where the whole thing is about having all these nice and amazing perks to attract the top talent.

        I wonder what is going to happen when the investors start being less generous with their cash and saying “where is our profit?” Google and facebook will always be able to provide nice perks but how about Air BnB or Lyft or Uber or Munchery, Caviar, Washio, etc.? What is going to happen at those places when the perks go away?

        Also the perks are not universal. Those companies still higher contractors to do janitorial work and/or drive the buses. Those people are not getting perks.

        When I tell them about some of the places I have worked for, my girlfriend and her friends react with expressions but “That is such an old school management style.Why are you being judged so heavily on X, Y, and Z. The new style is all about flexibility. Don’t your bosses understand that spending more money might be more efficient because of X, Y, and Z.”

        All of these makes me wonder if nice work atmospheres are just another way in which the “elite” win over everyone else. Not that I have ever worked anywhere atrocious but my girlfriend gets a free winter vacation of about two weeks and another one during July 4th when her company goes into shutdown mode and operates with skeleton crews. I don’t think this will ever happen to me.Report

        • Avatar Barry says:

          “I wonder what is going to happen when the investors start being less generous with their cash and saying “where is our profit?” Google and facebook will always be able to provide nice perks but how about Air BnB or Lyft or Uber or Munchery, Caviar, Washio, etc.? What is going to happen at those places when the perks go away?”

          The perks will go away (except for top management). At that point, it will be clear just what was being accomplished aside from spending money.

          IMHO, companies with lots of cash to burn will have nice perks. They other sign will be lavish investment in pet projects unrelated to what the company actually does.

          I’m thinking of Google’s self-driving vehicles as a prime example.Report

        • Avatar j r says:

          They also tend to work for tech companies or started tech companies where the whole thing is about having all these nice and amazing perks to attract the top talent.

          I wonder what is going to happen when the investors start being less generous with their cash and saying “where is our profit?”

          Have you considered that the “nice and amazing perks” are actually just ways of being less generous with their cash?Report

          • Avatar Damon says:

            Indeed. I read, back in the day, that the point of all the game rooms and vending machines, and the cart guys who brought you coffee, lunch, on site dry cleaning, etc. was to keep you working and productive longer. That makes sense. If you’re eating lunch or playing table tennis at work you are likely discussing work and solving problems, in addition to discussing last night’s game.

            It’s one reason I generally don’t socialize with work folks after work. I’m not getting paid for it. I’m not going to the company picnic on a Saturday where people will be asking me about work.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


            True but they still get paid amounts that most people would be envious of on top of the perks. A lot of people work for far lower salaries in much more dreary and perk free environments.Report

  4. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I like to make a distinction between “authority” and “power” that I think fits here. I have no problem with the former but a major problem with the latter.Report

  5. Avatar Barry says:

    Rufus: “Such was the conservative argument: when a culture loses commanding structures of authority, power invariably rushes into the void. ”

    I don’t see what this means, in any real sense. Taking the Civil Rights Movement as a clear example, from the viewpoint of conservatives, the commanding structures of authority were weakened, but so was their power.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I honestly don’t see the racism that the Civil Rights Movement fought against as anything but structures of power that warped all related cultural institutions.Report

      • Avatar Will H. says:

        That’s funny.

        I’ve been thinking about this Black Lives Matter thing, and it is sort of both good and bad.
        First, I did this study for a class last semester where I looked at all these police shootings. Every other student did the same, but for a different area.
        In my area, 33% of all police shootings involved someone described as “mentally ill” or “mentally disturbed.”
        Some students had as high as 50% in their area.

        Of course, I’ve said over and over that police shootings are about a lot more than just the police, and a lot more than institutional racism.
        And I’m not going back to that dead horse.

        But really, being mentally ill or mentally disturbed is the best predictive factor as to whether someone will be shot by the police.
        And if you take the proportion of the population which counts as mentally disturbed as compared to racial minorities, the differences are staggering.

        But it’s ok to shoot and kill the mentally ill.
        We, as a society, are ok with it.
        If the guy was on Prozac at some point . . .
        If the person had taken Ritalin at an earlier time . . .

        But it’s like this:
        BLM does a lot of good in bringing the issue o the table.
        They do a lot of harm in centering around the wrong problem.
        Any solution they come up with will address some problem other than police shootings.

        But every one of us has limitations on our good, and our usefulness.

        That’s what makes this funny:
        structures of power that warped all related cultural institutions.

        The Civil Rights Movement has come of age, in that it can now act as an impediment to meaningful progress.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        Neither do I, but the opponent of the movement were, IIRC, quick to denounce Federal power (‘tyranny’) and interference.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Okay, that’s interesting. I vaguely remember the idiocy of W.F. Buckley on that issue. To my mind, the use of discriminatory laws and practices had already tipped their hand that it was about power and that they had zero moral authority on the issue. That segregation would be ended through federal power at that point is a given. However, it would be interesting to read the journals of the time to see how many writers tried to fob off racist power as some sort of moral authority.Report

          • Avatar Will H. says:

            That is sort of straying away from what I was getting at.

            The two most accurate predictors of whether the state will remove children from a household are: 1) single-parent families, and 2) racial minorities.

            Now, when’s the last time you heard:
            Black Children Matter (?)

            I’m not even going to go into the “Mentally Ill Lives Matter” thing, because we all know that is sort of (?) ridiculous . . .Report

  6. Avatar Will H. says:

    IIRC, there are six different types of authority bases.
    The one you see in Reggie is “authentic authority,” which is derived from position.
    It’s also known to cause all kinds of problems.
    The problem you see with Reggie is one of personnel management, and not authority.
    Generally, people who rely on authentic authority are very poor managers.
    It’s something of an indication that no one really likes them on a personal level, and no one really thinks they know what they’re doing.

    Also, it is very poor structurally to have an inspector as a supervisor.
    An inspector must maintain his independence, or what occurs is not an inspection.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Yeah, I’ve done work with the MIC and with the private sector and there are pluses and minuses to both… the military has all sorts of heraldry to properly delineate who can tell whom to do what. But you can always tell which guys are the guys that everybody listens to and which guys are the guys who only get listened to the bare minimum. The private sector, by contrast, has much different forms of heraldry… but, within a few minutes, you can tell who can ask whom to get something while they’re up.Report

  7. Avatar j r says:

    Some friends have commented how startling it is that a university, a “bastion of political correctness,” would employ a sexual harasser.

    This sentence is important in that it related intimately to the rest of the piece. Yes, the university is a bastion of political correctness, but it is a political correctness that serves the interest of the university. That is the way authority works. It uses whatever tools it has at its disposal and in whichever direction is most useful. If you confronted Reggie about his treatment of women, he might very well accuse you of being politically correct.

    The thing that I find continually surprising is the extent to which so many people have made misunderstanding political correctness a key component of their identities, which in turn makes them perpetually subject to someone else’s authority.Report

  8. no one has ever complained that they went into a clean washroom and found dust on the rim

    You’re obviously not in Kansas, where it’s a common complaint that “all you see is dust on the rim”.Report

  9. Great piece, but I’ll finish reading it in the morning. I’m tired enough that I read it as the Roman emperors having both artichokes and polenta.Report

  10. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    Generally speaking I’m not a fan of “leaders” or those at the top in power chain of command. But I will say this: 1. They too are subject to “rules” and 2. they have bosses who have power over them; and 3. liability is vicariously upwards, ultimately the President of the organization gets in trouble for fires down below they couldn’t prevent from occurring or put out.

    The best organizations are those that can voluntarily learn to works things out among themselves without the need to engage in threats and so on.

    If you are a boss you need your workers to get shit done. If you are constantly fighting, that’s a huge obstacle to achieving your outcomes.

    On the other hand if you want to throw a monkey wrench in the entire system, read Saul Alinsky and follow his tactics.Report

    • Avatar Will H. says:

      There are two different phenomena of organizations that I am interested in (at present).
      One is the rewarding of unethical conduct. Many times such persons acquire a reputation of “getting things done,” and are shifted upward in the organization to effect even more egregious ethical violations.
      The other is the squelching of negative feedback. Feedback is an incredibly important aspect of the six-step communication model. It is what gives organizations the ability to self-correct (as well as separating feedback from noise).

      When these two occur simultaneously within the same organization, schtuff starts to happen.Report

      • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

        One downside I’ve noticed to having a team/chain of command that is “too comfortable” working with one another is a kind of error can get embedded in the system. And it’s not even that critical feedback is “shut down,” rather it’s either ignored or excuses are made for it.

        That is until someone in a position of power comes in and shakes things up. This might be one reason why “new blood” in leadership positions leads to things like more firings and layoffs.Report

        • Avatar Will H. says:

          That is an interesting observation.
          But I have to wonder, what is the cause of this feeling of being “too comfortable” in an organization?
          Is it a matter of roles being unclear? A matter of cliques within an organization? Some inadequacy of oversight of the directors?
          From my understanding of human nature, I am inclined to believe that the answer is something that is laughably stupid.Report

          • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

            “Is it a matter of roles being unclear?”

            It could be, but probably not so much. We can always give a description of roles that are overly clear (that is, in principle, give too much work for which one is responsible in the event that all of the undesirable contingencies occur).

            “A matter of cliques within an organization?”

            Yes. That’s important. It’s like a informal mini-union. If you can get yourself in such a group it benefits your self interest. A union, to the extent that they don’t bring down the house, is like a huge version of such a clique.

            “Some inadequacy of oversight of the directors?”

            That’s possible. Though directors and high level executives cannot possibly know of all the minutiae that occurs below them for which they are responsible. So when they make decisions that affect those down below, one criticisms is “they, the bosses, ‘don’t know what they are doing.'”

            Being able to see the “big picture” whiling knowing there will be smaller, perhaps important details they cannot possibly know is what makes a leader more effective.Report