Those bumper stickers that say "Question Authority" -- have you seen them?
Once I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Who are you to tell me to question authority?"
I have always liked that one, partly because it's snarky, and partly because its snark derives from pointing out that the Question Authority folks are oblivious to the fact that, in asserting a standard of behavior, they don't so much undermine the notion of authority as set themselves up as an alternative authority.
Kaydee at Engineering Ethics Blog has a good meditation on the purpose of authority structures, and how to question authorities without questioning authority.
He focuses on the authority structure of licensed architects and engineers, who receive their authority from a licensing board, who in turn receive authorization from the government... and if you are a U. S. Constitutional fan, you know that the government in turn receives its authority from the consent of the governed:
There are those who view all authority with suspicion, and for some reason they seem especially widespread in New England, where “Question Authority” bumper stickers are almost as common as license plates; at least they were when I lived there in the 1990s. The question I’d like to ask today is, can you be a good engineer and question authority too? That is, is it consistent to be simultaneously an ethical engineer, and to maintain a fundamentally skeptical and judgmental attitude toward all authorities?
...Normally we think of a person in authority as having power to decide important matters. This is the facet of authority that first comes to mind when I think about authority with respect to engineering. In an architectural firm, for example, only certain licensed architects and engineers are authorized to sign off on blueprints (or whatever the electronic equivalent is these days). But using the word “authorized” in that way brings up a second aspect of authority.
Authorities don’t just get up one day and declare themselves authorities. They have to be authorized. In the case of licensed engineers, the state board in charge of licensing engineers authorizes the engineer to sign off on designs. So authorities must receive their authority from, well, other authorities. And authorities, as Austin points out, are ultimately other persons. Even when we cite a licensing board or a book as an authority, we really refer to the person or people behind these intermediate entities. So you can’t have authority without speaking of authorities, that is, persons who have authority.
That raises the structural question of where authority ultimately comes from....
Authorities must be questioned from time to time, because anyone can discover a problem that must be corrected or have an insight that must travel up the chain in order to be acted upon. But we have a responsibility to do so in a way that preserves the existing authority structure -- which, after all, was put in place for a reason:
[N]ow and then, you may find that your authorities, whoever they are, have made an error, ranging from a mistake in a textbook to an order to falsify test records for an engineering project. It will then be your role to deal respectfully but truthfully with the error in a way that preserves the overall authority structure, but moves the organization toward the freedom for human flourishing that [is] the ultimate purpose of all authority.
I noted that one feature of a healthy and effective authority structure is the existence of a clear and well-accepted procedure by which information moves up the chain of command, so to speak. It's especially important that the procedure be well-defined when the information has the potential to contradict the "authorities" or even to embarrass them, and it's even more important when human life may be at stake. Think emergency rooms, combat theaters, and cockpits.
Wikipedia has an interesting article on one such system of communication: CRM, for Cockpit (or Crew) Resource Management. (Sometimes the same thing is called Bridge Resource Management or Maritime Resource Management.)
CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged.
... It recognizes that a discrepancy between what is happening and what should be happening is often the first indicator that an error is occurring. This is a delicate subject for many organizations, especially ones with traditional hierarchies, so appropriate communication techniques must be taught to supervisors and their subordinates, so that supervisors understand that the questioning of authority need not be threatening, and subordinates understand the correct way to question orders.
Cockpit voice recordings of various air disasters tragically reveal first officers and flight engineers attempting to bring critical information to the captain's attention in an indirect and ineffective way. By the time the captain understood what was being said, it was too late to avert the disaster. A CRM expert named Todd Bishop developed a five-step assertive statement process that encompasses inquiry and advocacy steps:
- Opening or attention getter - Address the individual. "Hey Chief," or "Captain Smith," or "Bob," or whatever name or title will get the person's attention.
- State your concern - Express your analysis of the situation in a direct manner while owning your emotions about it. "I'm concerned that we may not have enough fuel to fly around this storm system," or "I'm worried that the roof might collapse."
- State the problem as you see it - "We're only showing 40 minutes of fuel left," or "This building has a lightweight steel truss roof, and we may have fire extension into the roof structure."
- State a solution - "Let's divert to another airport and refuel," or "I think we should pull some tiles and take a look with the thermal imaging camera before we commit crews inside."
- Obtain agreement (or buy-in) - "Does that sound good to you, Captain?"
These are often difficult skills to master, as they may require significant changes in personal habits, interpersonal dynamics, and organizational culture.
Maybe the bumper sticker should read: Question Authorities, Intelligently.