Authority Gradients, or How to be Constructively Insubordinate
Have you ever thought, “I can’t speak up, I’m only a new member of staff”? Or perhaps, “I think this is a mistake, but I’m the least senior person here”? Maybe just “I’m not certain about this, so why does everyone else seem happy?”
If so, you’ve encountered an authority gradient – a term more familiar within a healthcare, maritime or aviation setting. In these contexts it’s understood that accidents could have been averted had the theatre nurse spoken up, or the air steward challenged the pilot, yet deference and respect meant that the more inexperienced person kept quiet.
Universities are much less hierarchical than the examples above, however authority gradients will still be present – perhaps between managers and team members or students and lecturers. We’re not usually involved in safety critical environments – we’re unlikely to experience a “hard contact” or an iatrogenic fatality – yet mistakes are possible, can impact quality, and insights or ideas are not bounded by grade. So how do we ensure that everyone can contribute to quality services?
A technique called “graded assertiveness” may well be helpful – one model for this is “PACE”, which has a four step escalation process.
Start off with a non-confrontational question – “What will happen if we take down this server?” The response might be, “Oops, that’s the active server, we’re upgrading the passive server first”, at which point PACE stops as disaster has been averted!
Alerts are a little more assertive – “Isn’t this the active server? Weren’t we planning on upgrading the passive server first?” Of course, it may be that this is the passive server and so the response might be “No, this isn’t the active server, the active one is over there, so we’re working on the correct one.” There’s never any harm in checking! But if the active server is about to be powered down…
Now a direct challenge is required, and using their name may help it be heard – “Jo, we agreed to upgrade the passive server first, to avoid a service outage. This is not the passive server, it’s the active server. We will cause an outage if we continue.” Hopefully the challenge is heard and acted upon, but if not…
At this final point, in a safety critical environment, the junior would take over and prevent the surgeon operating on the wrong leg, or the copilot would abort the landing, etc. We’re probably not in that situation!
So, I’d suggest that we escalate instead, raising the issue with line management as appropriate. Although perhaps if the mistake were time-critical, something might need to be done to delay. “Stop! This is the wrong server, we need to reconfirm that this is the correct action with…”
Whilst we may not often be in situations of imminent peril, we do find ourselves in time pressured situations, particularly during major incidents or continuity events. In these cases teamwork and communication techniques can prevent mistakes happening, as together we’re wiser than individuals. However, we need to take the time to think and be willing to contribute, even against an authority gradient.
This technique isn’t just for urgent interrupts – thinking more widely, if you’re involved in any situation analysis, problem analysis, potential problem analysis or decision analysis, you’ve been involved because you bring a unique perspective, so may well have spotted something others have not, regardless of their seniority, so consider using PACE to make your point heard. It’s possible you’re right, and the team will realise so as you explain, or, as things are discussed further, you may be content that the point has now been adequately heard or addressed.
In any case, I look forward to folk using PACE to prevent me from making my next blunder!