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The Underutilization of Moral Authority


One of the most common questions I get from readers of my books and audience members at my talks goes something like this: "What do I do if my manager is the problem on my team? I mean, I don't have control over him. How am I supposed to have any influence?" Sometimes the question isn't even about a manager, but about a peer or employee in another department within the organization.

I used to respond to those questions by encouraging people to try to focus on influencing their own department and maybe even accept their situation for what it is. And while there is virtue in doing both of those things, I've recently come to the realization that there is an additional option-and a powerful one-that most of us are reticent to use, or perhaps unaware of. What I'm referring to is something I'll define as moral authority.

Moral authority, as I'm using it here, is simply the power we have to affect change by appealing to what is right and good. It exists above and beyond the formal power structure in any organization or society, and rests upon the idea that people generally want to do what is good and what is best. Most importantly, it is available to all of us with the courage and emotional intelligence to use it properly.

An example might be helpful.

Let's say my children fail to clean their room one day, and I announce that they have to go to bed a half hour early as punishment. If they believe my decision is unfair, they have a choice to make. They can tantrum, hoping that I'll somehow change my mind just to avoid the pain and suffering of listening to them complain. Or they can choose the more political route, and go to their mom and try to drive a rift between us. Or they can exercise their moral authority and calmly, directly explain that they didn't clean their room because they have a big school project due the next day, and they've been spending all of their time building an Egyptian pyramid out of sugar cubes.

Unless I'm a cold-hearted tyrant, there is a darn good chance that a reasonable explanation, mixed with a pledge to get back on track after the pyramid project has been completed, will yield a change of verdict on my part. In fact, as the manager/judge/warden of my boys, I actually want and expect them to appeal to my better judgment if I'm missing something. When they don't, but opt instead to throw a tantrum or political maneuvering, I assume they know my decision is correct and that they're trying to pull a fast one on me.

This same phenomenon occurs in the places where we work outside our homes.

A manager makes an unpopular policy decision that does not seem to be in the best interest of the company. Employees grumble to one another, peppering their manager's assistant with complaints that she passes along to the boss in the form of anecdotal information. Those same employees then try to find a way to thwart the policy by exploiting a technicality or lobbying others in the company to join their chorus of complaints. Eventually, chaos and dissent rise to a level where the leader must make a decision-relent to the pressure and look weak, or stand firm and cement his or her reputation as an authoritarian who is not concerned about employees. It's a no-win situation for the manager, which will produce a poor outcome for the company.

A better approach would be for employees to respectfully go to the manager directly and explain that they have the same general goals as the manager but that the new policy won't ultimately help them to accomplish those goals. As simple as that sounds, and possibly even na?ve, it is amazing to me how readily most leaders respond to the exertion of moral authority. But with one caveat.

Moral authority can't become moralistic authority. Too often we confuse the idea of taking a moral stand on an issue with taking a moralistic one. When we do that, when we come across as judgmental or condescending or angry, we run the risk of putting the person we're trying to influence on the defensive, which only encourages them to hold their ground and shut us out. The key to effective moral authority is taking a stand based on what is good while being kind and respectful and even empathic to the person we're trying to influence.

Now, moral authority certainly has its limits, especially in an organization or a society without common values. And it cannot force an excessively stubborn, insecure or ignorant leader to do something they don't want to do. However, most of us fail to even consider using moral authority without knowing with confidence that the stubbornness, ignorance or insecurity of a leader is really insurmountable.

I realize that all of this sounds extremely simple and obvious. Which begs the question, 'why don't we do this more?' Sometimes we're afraid that it won't work and that we'll be punished. This is usually an exaggerated fear. Sometimes we assume that the leader who made the decision must have considered every option and chose the one they did carefully, and with conviction. This is very often an inaccurate and unfair assumption. But more often than not, I think we simply fail to realize that exercising moral authority is even an option, one that is in everyone's best interest, especially the leader's.