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  • Writer's pictureYu-An Wang

Reflection on Authority in GRC

Group Relations Conference has helped me understand authority better, including what authority is to me, how I perceive and interact with authority figures, and how do I do with my own authority.

I learned that I had this assumption in my mind that "authority" was always given by the even higher authority or those authority figures seemed to be born with authority. I remembered that the first time I was given authority was the very first few days of my elementary school as a first grader. Like a so-called "Teacher's pet," I was given/assigned the authority role to help the teacher manage the classroom. And the reason why I could get this authority only because I had good grade and maybe I listened to teachers, which was proved to be wrong later though. With many experiences like this, I did not really see authority as dynamic even though Taiwan had their first political party alternation in 2000. What I saw with my 11-year-old mind was a bunch of people got dragged down from the stage and another group of people ran up to claim the spots all at once. It felt more disruptive than continuous. And more ironically, the system itself did not really just change with this new group of people because the system just absorbed them to be part of the system. This is why changes in bureaucracy are always hard to happen.

In addition, once you are an authority, you are always an authority in our society. The most salient instance would be that parents are always acting as a parent to their children no matter how old their children are actually. There would never (or seldom) be a really equal relationship between a parent and a child to see each other as an adult. In this parent-child relationship, a child might always have to be compliant and submissive while a parent might always have to pretend that they know it all and claim that they are always right. Therefore, I got to have this mindset that authority is stagnant and fixed and given.

On the other hand, I thus learned to please those authority figures to the extend that they would give me the authority I wanted in order to accomplish something for myself. Within this very academic-oriented education system in Taiwan, it was always less difficult for students with good grade to earn trust and authority from teachers. Now, when I looked back to those times, maybe I was never sincerely respecting those teachers' authority when they did make some mistakes. Yet, I knew the rules to play the game and I played it. I was also sometimes maybe scary and threatening to them when I did not really comply with their expectations on me while I had certain authority to manipulate the situation. I was probably not so aware of it until much later on when the similar situation happened again and again in my life.

With maybe a little bit perfectionism, I do not tolerate mistakes well, no matter theirs or mine. The illusion is that if the authority figure made a mistake, the whole world that relies on the authority would just crumble and fall apart. This is maybe the best instance to illustrate the idea of dependency as one of the basic assumptions. With the threat emerging, I would either attack him or her and take away his or her authority, or just run away from the dangerous situation. It was the fight-or-flight mode I was too familiar with. When I robbed him or her of the authority successfully, I had to bear the responsibility associated with the authority at the same time though neither of them were supposed to belong to me before. Sometimes, the burden of responsibility might be even more harsh. Yet, when I ran away, I also gave up my own authority at the same and became entirely vulnerable and dependent on this authority figure even more, which further created the strong sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

After entering the Group Relations/Tavistock world, I learned to conceptualize authority in a different way. I remembered that when I was in the Beijing GRC conference, I had so much eagerness to protect the conference director when he got attacked because I did not want him to crumble and I understood how much burden he was bearing with the parallel process I was having at the same time. Being a real authority figure does not only have the enjoyment of exercising your legitimate power but also carrying whatever the consequences ensued. Authority is authorized by members and followers. Thus, members and followers have every right to challenge the authority figure! This is such a whole foreign concept to me. As an authority figure, you not only have to make a right decision for the group, you also have to hold the space for followers and members to express their frustration, upsets, and anger freely, and to remedy when mistake occurs as human mistake is inevitable. Maybe mistakes compromise this authority figure's authority to lead the team at that specific point; yet, they do not make the authority figure a failure. My desire to protect this authority figure was out of my own insecurity and lack of trust in the environment.

Sometimes the group dynamics pulled me into the role of authority to do certain things for other people, such as protecting other members, resolve conflicts, and bridge communication from different sides. Some of them might be rational and task related while some not. I also do not always know how to do this right with the authority, which might be scary at times. This is also the worry that I cannot respond well to others expectations on me when they authorized me to do this. So, the learning going forward for me is to say no to those pulls. I am trying to learn to only exercise my authority for myself first. I do not have to fill the space every single time. It will all work out some day no matter what the process would look like.

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