Escape from Tyranny

Take a look at the following dialog occurring in a work context:

Boss: Worker, when can you get the expenditure report done?
Worker: That will take me three to four days, boss.
Boss: I really need it by tomorrow, so you have until then!
Worker: … [imagine what might be said here]

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation—on either side? This very short snippet does not tell us enough about how the apparent problem—a conflict in visions of how much time is needed for a specific task to be satisfactorily completed—can be resolved. One of the worst outcomes I can think of would be for the worker to simply say, “OK, boss, you got it!” without it being true. Unfortunately in our culture there seems to be a strong expectation within a hierarchy: obedience.

Before jumping into the fray, I would like to express some gratitude for both hierarchies and, more generally, culture as evolved through selection of adaptive processes over generations. While maybe not perfect, our current structures and institutions have allowed us to get to where we are today. Human life has become incredibly complex, and each individual has only one lifetime to acquire their skills. For culture to become maximally useful, a process of hierarchical organization by expertise level is applied across people, also allowing for nuanced specialization.

According to Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s work, consciousness is a fundamental process element of reality, mediating between chaos (exceptions) and order (rules), represented by nature and culture. And the challenge I see with how he describes hierarchies becoming tyrannical is in our lack of awareness and consciousness within the hierarchy. If we unconsciously apply the lesson provided by our cultural learning—that the person higher up in the hierarchy is right—we may pay dearly.

How does tyranny come about? It is tempting to infer intentionality, like people at the top of some hierarchy—say politics or economy—wanting to act tyrannically. However, I believe that no assumption of intentionality is needed. Rather, it is precisely our lack of consciousness or awareness about the hierarchy and its function, the unconscious application of the rule of obedience on both sides, that create the tyranny.

So how does this matter?

In my understanding of how culture teaches people to accept hierarchies, we have adopted a fairly unconscious approach to authority. Probably in line with Dr. Peterson’s description of lobsters, and not too far from our evolutionary ancestors, chimpanzee tribes, we may come to think of people higher up in a hierarchy as “sources of authority”, people who get to tell us what to do. And any criticism going in the opposite direction can be deflected without consciousness simply by making a claim of hierarchical authority.

Which brings me to the question implied in the title, how do we escape this tyranny of the hierarchy? And the aforementioned lack of conscious awareness hints at my preferred solution: through using our consciousness to communicate about the conflict. This requires both sides, the person higher up and further down the hierarchy to be willing to engage in a dialog that seeks a resolution, which might look like this:

Worker: (deep breath) So, boss, I sense you need this urgently?
Boss: Absolutely, I am presenting the numbers at a meeting.
Worker: For the numbers to reflect all expenditures, I need more time.
Boss: (pause) What is the error if you only have until tomorrow?
Worker: I believe I can be within a 10 per cent error margin until then.
Boss: OK, thank you for letting me know. That will be good enough!

In other words, by communicating about the meaning and purpose of the report, and both sides being interested in fulfilling this purpose—rather than getting their way, clinging to their initial notion of a good strategy—the conflict can be resolved. And I appreciate that this is only one of very many possible resolutions. My intuitive claim is that, no matter the exact details, the conflict does require resolution, and the best way of seeking this is through conscious communication. And the initial deep breath and the pause taken by the people are, for me, signs of not being tied to the rule of obedience.

What does this consciousness require from people? I believe the following ingredients are among the absolutely necessary: courage to face, explore, and express one’s initially unconsciously processed feelings combined with faith in the ability to find a resolution fulfilling the shared purpose.

Even in the absence of any other ingredients, so long as both people (or sides in a conflict) have the willingness to engage with a process of resolving the issue, I believe they can find a solution. Additional skills will naturally improve the experience, and greatly increase the likelihood of finding a resolution in time. So, what skills might be particularly helpful?

The first seems to be noticing that a conflict exists, paired with a clear appreciation that this perception is not an indication of either side’s failings—say, the worker thinking, “I’m such a failure for not being able to perform better,” or, “my boss is such a terrible leader, he has no idea how long things really take.” Both would be relatively unconscious expressions of the experience of the conflict in my opinion.

The next skill might be the ability to translate this perception into language that does not attribute responsibility for the resolution to one side, and instead simply states something like, “hey, boss, I notice that you and I seem to have a different understanding around what this report needs to accomplish, and how long it will take me to put something together that does that. Would you be willing to talk about that?

Naturally, the boss might then be stuck in the unconscious thinking about hierarchies: “No! I am the boss, which means I am right, and you are wrong!”. In that case, that is the actual source of the conflict, and the dialog might continue with the worker expressing that: “So, it seems to me that you believe it is important for me, as the worker, to not question your authority? That puts me into a difficult bind. I believe for you to make the best of what I contribute, you need to understand a few things about the report, which you seem unaware of.”

The core I always return to, when I think about this vignette and the many real world problems that seem to be related to our unconscious appreciation of how hierarchies—and cultural institutions more generally—function, is that people on both sides of a conflict need courage and faith to express themselves consciously enough to resolve it.

And as a final note, this naturally does not solely apply to work settings or hierarchies. The same is true for any conflict in which unconscious, unexamined expectations—where we tend to believe certain rules apply—get in the way of honest communication. For instance, this might occur in a marriage in which one person believes the other person is not contributing their fair share to the success of the relationship. So, for me, this matters across all interpersonal conflicts: to the extent I can become conscious of my experience and communicate about it, I believe in the opportunity to resolve the situation without the need for anyone to lose.

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