February 23, 2017

How to Question Legitimate Authority

We are taught to respect authority, and rightfully so. God has placed parents, bosses, governments, and religious leaders over us as legitimate authority figures that we are to respect unless they forfeit that respect. 

But questioning authority (respectfully) is not the same as defying authority, and legitimate authority should welcome questions. Here's a situation where authority should have been questioned in a book I recently read called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (amazon affiliate link)

A physician ordered ear drops to be administered to the right ear of a patient suffering pain and infection there. But instead of writing out completely the location “right ear” on the prescription, the doctor abbreviated it so that the instructions read “place in R ear.” Upon receiving the prescription, the duty nurse promptly put the required number of ear drops into the patient’s anus. Obviously, rectal treatment of an earache made no sense. Yet neither the patient nor the nurse questioned it. 
In Japan, where I live, and in other parts of Asia, it is particularly hard to question authority, but there are a few ways to make it more pleasant for both the one under authority and the one in authority. 

We recently talked about this issue at my church's men's group. Here are some helpful guidelines for people under authority who face a situation where questioning authority might be in order.

  • Determine whether you are the right person at the right time to bring this up.
  • Demonstrate commitment.
  • Try to find the answers yourself first.
  • Demonstrate humility.
  • Propose solutions.
  • Assume the best.
  • Assume that you might be missing something. Ask tentatively.
  • Think about the long-term relationship.

And some things to keep in mind for those in authority who want to be approachable.

  • You don't know it all.
  • People from different perspectives have much to offer.
  • Be big enough not to invalidate questions just because the questioner didn't go through the above guidelines.

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