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Office politics: Authority always wins

I have had several clients arrive at my office for our first session shortly after they have been terminated from their jobs. Still others have arrived stating they are about to be fired. Of these individuals, several have indicated they were surprised that their jobs were threatened because they were “in the right” and thus expected they would have come out on top. The following two stories are examples of clients that were fired when they chose to take on their bosses. 

(Details have been changed to protect privacy.)

One middle-aged man worked as an administrator in a large office tower. His boss was verbally abusive and was not well liked by the staff. My client was in conflict with his boss and had gone to his boss’ boss to complain. My client had expected his colleagues to back him, but no one stepped forward to support him when push came to shove. Even after his termination, he said “but I was right… how can I get fired when I was right?”

A second story involves a woman who supervised a group of IT professionals writing software. This woman had been quite successful writing software and had been promoted to a supervisory position because of her skill level. She had been happy before her promotion, but had asked to be made a supervisor because she thought moving up the corporate ladder was a necessary step in her career.

Her firm let her go ten months after promoting her because she was creating too many problems and had become difficult to lead. She was surprised when she was let go. She said she took on her bosses because she believed the decisions they were making were poor and that she felt she had to fight because she was right.

I asked this woman whether she had considered not taking on her bosses and simply allowing them to move in a direction she believed was wrong. She looked perplexed. She said it had never occurred to her to not try to influence the decisions being made when she knew that the decisions were wrong.

So here’s my comment about challenging the boss: If you decide to take on the boss, I suggest that you have your eyes wide open about how things can turn out for you. In both of the above situations, the individuals didn’t see that they could possibly be let go. In both situations, the individuals thought that being right would offer them protection from things turning out badly.

For both clients, I asked why they thought they would be safe just because they were right. I remarked that people have been wronged repeatedly historically, and that things don’t always turn out well just because you are right. I suggested they think about racism or a human rights issue. With these scenarios, history repeatedly documents that things may not turn out well for you just because you are in the right.

In 1983, John Cougar Mellencamp released a Top 20 hit called “Authority Song.” The song is described by one anonymous writer on the internet as “…a bitter admission that power and wealth are always held by a chosen few — and that no matter how hard you might fight for change, it won’t have any lasting effect on the status quo.”

The refrain for the Authority Song goes:

I fight authority, authority always wins
I fight authority, authority always wins

I do not want to give the impression that people should not fight for what they believe is right in order to keep a job. Rather, I want to suggest that it is naive to believe that one can take on the powers that be in an organization and think that they may not be negatively affected.

I am in full support of people standing firm against authority when what they are arguing for is a cause they believe in. But I am suggesting there is a benefit, when doing so, to having your eyes wide open. Sometimes it may be necessary to fight for what is right because you will be able to look yourself in the mirror and know that you did your best to uphold an important ideal. And this might mean taking it on the chin once in a while.

One final story, told to me by a social worker, illustrates this ideal. This social worker was employed at an outpatient treatment clinic. He had dropped everything and spent five hours over three days with a client because the client was actively suicidal. He played an active role in helping the client remain alive, and getting the client help she needed over the longer-term.

The social worker’s supervisor, the clinic director, was not a mental health practitioner. She approached the social worker after the situation was resolved successfully and told the social worker that, despite the positive outcome, she was frustrated because the social worker had “not used his time cost effectively.”

The social worker asked his supervisor what she would have liked him to have done. He was told he should have “run group like you were supposed to… others had to cover for you… you should have sent the client to the hospital.”

The social worker was told he was expected to follow this directive when a similar situation arose in future. He was faced with a serious dilemma because a social worker cannot ethically walk away from a client with suicidal intent. A social worker will face disciplinary action from their provincial governing body if they abandon someone who is actively suicidal, which is as it should be. But the social worker knew that his job would be on the line, too, if he didn’t follow his boss’ directive.

The social worker told his supervisor about how his provincial governing body would respond if he were to abandon a suicidal client, and stated that in future, in a similar situation, he would behave exactly the way he had. The social worker told his supervisor, “I will always work to keep a client alive… to prevent a suicide.”

The social worker was fired by the clinic director. The clinic director’s decision must have made sense to her in some twisted way. After all, how could she supervise someone who had defied her authority?

The social worker was able to find another job, and he was able to maintain his credentials, too. The social worker said he had known he needed to leave the clinic before this incident took place, because it had been difficult to behave in an ethical manner on several previous occasions.

So go ahead and take on authority when you know you are right. There may be times when you believe you have no choice. However, I suggest you make sure you are aware that, in so doing, you may be terminated from your job. If you are in a situation where you believe you have no choice, I suggest you make peace with the possibility of being fired. There are worse things that could happen to you.

Alternately, if what you are fighting for is something you believe you could possibly lose your job over, you might choose to hold your tongue and start looking for another job.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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