Increase Creativity by Empowering Your Software Team
Understanding How the Authority Principle Can Inhibit More than Help

Increase Creativity by Empowering Your Software Team : Understanding How the Authority Principle Can Inhibit More than Help

The basic premise of the authority principle is explained in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert B. Cialdini. People will go to great lengths to follow the command of an authority figure, even when the command is harmful or destructive. While obedience to authority is required and necessary in a highly functioning society, there a countless documented cases of blind obedience with dire consequences. Nurses have administered near fatal doses of medicine to patients because they didn't dare question a mistake on the doctor's orders. Similarly, military personnel have followed commands they knew were wrong, for the same reasons.

In one experiment, volunteers were willing to administer electrical shocks of increasing higher and dangerous voltages, even after the victims were pleading for them to stop. In this experiment, the "victims" were merely actors who were pretending to be shocked, no electrical voltages were delivered. However the professors conducting the experiment were extremely surprised that the volunteers were willing to blindly follow the orders of an authority figure when it clearly was causing harm to the victim.

There are a few points worth noting regarding people's willingness to obey commands from authority figures.

  • Pre-conditioned response - People have been conditioned to respect and obey authority from the moment of their birth; parents, teachers, government officials, bosses, etc.
  • Absolves responsibility - Taking a command from someone in a position of authority seems to have the psychological effect of absolving responsibility of whoever is carrying out the command. Even if they feel the command is wrong, they are able to compartmentalize it in such a way that they don't feel responsible for the outcome (especially if the outcome is extremely negative).
  • Connotation over Context - People respect the appearance of authority. In one example, an actor who played a doctor in a television series was extremely effective advertising the health benefits of a particular brand of decaffeinated coffee. Coffee sales skyrocketed, even though this actor really had no qualifications to talk about the health benefits. It was the appearance of authority! People subconsciously thought of this actor as a doctor, because he'd played the part in a popular television series.

Practical Application in Software Development Teams

There is one key point to remember when applying the authority principle to your work as a software engineering manager. Your team members have been conditioned to automatically accept commands from authority figures (you - in this case). There may be times when you have poor judgment or make a bad decisions. At these moments, you will be much better served as a team, and as an organization, if your development team members question your judgment, and offer alternative suggestions.

Create an Environment Where Ideas can be Challenged

It is extremely important that you've created an environment where is it is acceptable to challenge ideas, and offer alternatives. Not just among team members, but also your ideas, as the leader. You will still have the ultimate decision-making power. However, it's important that you don't create a culture in which your team blindly follows your command and direction, even when it doesn't make sense to do so.

Empower the Team to Make Decisions

There will be times when your team challenges your decision, and they will be right. By empowering them to make decisions at times when they have the proper information, you will help create a culture in which the best decisions and ideas win out, regardless of where the idea originated.

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