Authority and aggressiveness

In many hierarchical organizations, such as businesses, bureaucracies, or academic institutions, there is power that comes from authority (that's exactly what the hierarchy is built from; though it's not the only kind of power, even in hierarchical organizations).

When you are in a situation of power, when you have the authority to tell
people what to do (and perhaps also how to do it), you have to be careful: power over people has strong catalytic effects on bringing character traits out in the open. A great temptation is to use people's emotions to manipulate them into doing what you want (using fears is particularly effective, but it works with other emotions too). It's clear (to most people) that one shouldn't do this. As usual, however, the first necessary step is to recognize situations of that sort — it's not always obvious when it is happening. It needs some sensibility, and of course you have to be clear yourself what's appropriate and right, and what isn't.

This is not just a pragmatic consideration, because the authority built on fear is ineffective and ephemeral — which it is: it is also harmful for your character. Using threats (however veiled or indirect) and feeling successful with it tends to build irascibility, a character weakness. People who are angered lightly can develop a despotic streak; they often take on the attitude of someone who has suffered injustice (in their anger, as an implied feeling) — and that doesn't fit reality. Playing the aggrieved party, they are in truth looking for an opportunity to inflict harm. Despotism is vicious because it lives the drive to hurt people, but under the disguise of being hurt oneself (as implied by the anger). Of course all this applies equally to similar behavior in other contexts than work: people can become despotic with their friends, or at home. Constellations of authority, however, have a tendency to bring these character attributes out more clearly into the open, or give occasion to develop them. Be cautious to avoid their traps!

A particularly dangerous type of situation is when playing on the emotions of others seems the only, or the most, effective means to reach some important goal. They're dangerous because they can make it seem that there really is a good reason, this time, to make an exception and do it. After all, it's the effectiveness of what you do that in the end will count. Or is it?

Acting badly cannot be justified by whatever end you may want to achieve. True, when we deliberate, when we decide to act, there are from time to time situations of conflict; in some of them, the effects of what you do would be the only criterion that can be sensibly used. And so, in these cases, you choose the course of action that promises the greatest certainty of success. But this can't be the right thing to do when acting badly is among the options. In cases like that, merely pointing to the greater effectiveness of some action for a desired outcome doesn't make it acceptable. In fact, there are many ethical limits to action that have the consequence of constraining effectiveness. That's a wide and debated field, of course; but there's a first couple of steps for everything. Make sure that you examine your choices, and consider whether they include a concern for treating everyone around you as a person, and not a mere means to some end; consider whether your first priority is integrity and acting well; test, especially, your awareness of the ambushes that authority can lead you into, and your vigilance and caution in keeping clear of them. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.