Have you ever overstepped your authority?*

Promoting change in the status quo can seem like an overwhelming idea. You might think you need special skills or a really unique story to challenge traditional norms and behaviors. In reality, the key to become a change maker is to cultivate the willingness to speak up. Sometimes you might find yourself in a situation in which is especially hard to have the courage to share your thoughts – or stand for what you believe in. Within your work, family, or community setting, power relations might make you feel reluctant to challenge the ways things are done.

Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen
Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen – Professor of International Management with focus on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion

In order to promote change within those hierarchies, one might need to overstep their authority. We asked the Professor of International Management with focus on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Ella Roininen, a few questions about her insights and experiences with challenging the status quo in those settings, let’s take a look at the answers now.

Have you ever been repressed or ignored when suggesting or explaining an idea you’re passionate about? How did you deal with that?

I cannot recall any particular situation when this happened in relation to me presenting an idea I’m passionate about. I know there are several occasions, some of which I have felt dominant and unfair, others kind of normal professional situations, in which my idea is just not flying. I recall more situations where I am not being heard or supported in general about my contribution, feeling it’s not what people would want to me express, are questioning and challenging my professionalism or even aspects of myself as a person. Earlier in my career, I would try to either point this out and make more effort to get included, or withdraw altogether from the conversation. These days I am more aware of the situational power dynamics and just keep going, reminding myself that these are power plays which I don’t need to take so seriously.  

What does authority mean to you? 

We can talk about formal and informal authority. Formal authority is having the space within organisational structures to express oneself and get heard, and in some places enjoying a role in which one is not easily challenged (which of course should not be the case even in formal authority positions). Informal authority can stem from

1) in a positive way from solid professional substance and/or personality, such as one is respected for being empathic, or admired for being charismatic. Or more hierarchically,

2), the socially constructed meanings associated with one’s skills and characteristics, such as being fluent in the language of communication, or occupying the norm acceptable identity and social position, such as in terms of race, gender and gender identity, age, or physical ability. Or,

3) from dominance behaviour, a way of occupying the shared space in a way that leaves little room for others to act at the eye level. In a way, all of these positions are associated with privileges that can and should be questioned, rethought and challenged.

Do you think people should overstep their authority if they are fighting for something they care about? What should you consider before doing that? 

I wouldn’t use the word ‘fighting’, because to me this has a negative connotation of being in a poor relationship with the world and even oneself. If one is fighting, one can easily come across as pushy. If one is fighting, one may find themselves in a negative emotional state that clogs the thinking. Challenging the rules and norms in an informed and considerate manner and from a peaceful and secure place within oneself (knowleadable, aware, leading by example) represents to me a more effective change method.

If we are talking of social change and social justice, it seldom comes about in a situation of consensus between all parties. Courage and unusual ways of thinking and acting are needed. So even if one is acting in a considered manner, one could be regarded as being pushy or uncomfortable.

In fact, one way to try make those questioning the status quo more quiet is to blame them for “acting wrong”, to make the person feel self-conscious of own conduct. But if you are self-reflective of your own conduct, ensuring your are communicating in a constructive yet effective manner, these judgements can be taken as an indication that change is being brought forward and consequently resisted, as can be expected. This is welcome news, in fact! So in sum, I believe that in order to create social change, we need to train the strength and confidence or our voices to be able to act relentless, overstep boundaries – from a place of knowledge and empathy within ourselves.

Ella’s insights make us reflect and understand more the necessity for open and insightful communication. Speaking up, listening and making sure voices are being heard are the base for change and progress. Overstepping your authority doesn’t mean necessarily fighting, but rather, making sure one’s expressing their opinion and beliefs – something that we can always do more.

*Karlshochschule is an educational institution and a non-profit organization as well. We want to encourage individuals and young people to take responsibility, find their own voice and initiate change in a sustainable and tolerant way. Listening to different opinions not only promotes different perspectives, but also discourse. The content of this blog is characterized by the diverse experience and opinions of the authors, which may not be the majority opinion of the university, but provokes reflection and discussion.

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