October 11, 2022

How do I deal with my fear of authority?

Olga Shavrina
I recently discovered that I have a fear of authority. Frankly, this revelation frustrated me a lot. I – a person, who lives by the mantra "do things my way", "rebel", and "be different" suddenly give a lot of sh*t about how my actions and ideas are perceived by people with higher ranks and loud voices, and moreover, value their point of view above my own and seldom question it.
This is the most vulnerable text I've ever written, and to be honest, I feel pretty uncomfortable posting it. However, I think that acknowledging the problem, especially publicly, is the first step towards solving it. Also, by sharing these thoughts, I hope I can help someone else do the same.

How I found it out

I was watching the "Obi-Wan Kenobi" series on Disney…

Spoiler alert!

…and heard little Leia Organa saying to her cousin: "You are scared of him - your father. You want him to like you, so you repeat what he says even though you don't really know what it means."

My eye twitched and I thought "Oh sh*t! Why do I feel so bad? Is she speaking about me?" Not in a relation to my father, of course, but to some colleagues with strong opinions, high authority, and loud voices.
At the same time, I was reading Deb Liu's book "Take Back Your Power" (which is great, by the way) and started to see myself in her stories and realised that I do have a strong conviction that some people are more important than me and their opinion has more weight than mine. And if our opinions differ, they are right and I am not.

Read a detailed review of this one and three more women empowering books.

Why does it happen?

There might be many reasons:

  • Childhood and school traumas
  • Traditional values (girls should be nice and supportive)
  • Fear to look stupid
  • Introversion
  • Fixed mindset (which shows its head in situations like this)
  • Negative previous experience
  • Habits

Sounds bad, right? But how exactly this situation can affect a person doing a product management job? Let's take a close look.

Weak point of view

One of the consequences of authority anxiety is struggling to stand your point of view. When you're trying to move a project with several stakeholders forward, you can find yourself trapped between two or more strong opinions, none of which are yours but all seem to be more important than yours.

This is a pretty pathetic situation where nobody wants to be, but a PM with authority issues finds themselves more often than they would want to.

The problem here is that you're taking the other person's opinion because "they know what they are talking about so they should be right about it" without actual convincing arguments not even realising it. And when somebody challenges this opinion, you can't find valid arguments to protect it.

And it affects the whole team. It demotivates people and lowers morale when they feel that the product manager is not 100% sure of what they are speaking about. Team members feel it in their gut, even when the PM themselves had not yet realised this.
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

- Oscar Wilde

Being different makes it worse

In my previous job at Nautal, I was very different from my colleagues. In many cases, I was "The Only" - the only woman in the room, the only non-native Spanish speaker, the only non-sailor and so many other "the only" things that I often felt like a complete imposter, especially when there were 5+ people in the room.

When you are somehow different, you often feel that "they know better" and your point of view is less important. So you keep your thoughts to yourself again and again. But this is a slippery slope because thus you make less impact. Being different is not a disadvantage, on a contrary, it's a virtue. Detracting your point of view over others' based on authority only, without strong argumentation hurts the whole project.
It is when you are most afraid of being wrong because your point of view is different that you need to listen to that voice and trust it. Bring your perspective to the fore. That thing you see that others miss will feel obvious to you. You will not understand why others don't see or understand it. Do not shut down your voice to fit in.

– Deb Liu

Waiting for a permission

My CEO likes to quote a famous saying "ask for forgiveness, not for permission". And he is absolutely right - this is what leaders do and this is the way to drive your ideas forward because nobody can do it better than you. But if you have a fear of authority, you instinctively want to secure yourself and not to "do a wrong thing", so you find yourself reluctant to act until somebody else "allows" you to do it and "confirms" that the idea is good.

It leads to a situation when other people's ideas get traction but yours get put on hold, marinating, and losing momentum. You find yourself helping your colleagues instead of driving your own projects and your own career forward.

Beware of HIPPOs

Authority anxiety is not a single person's issue. It affects the whole team and product in many ways. One of them is letting HIPPO (highest paid person's opinion) suppress other voices, and more importantly, the voice of customers. It often happens that there're people with a very strong point of view, high rank, and a loud voice on the team, so they can easily drive their ideas if you let them do it.

Imagine, a powerful team member brings a great idea for a new feature and sells it with their outstanding visionary talent (which they for sure possess). It's so easy to marry this idea and start building it without properly challenging the underlying problem and the solution itself. But what if it doesn't even solve the problem or a problem is not worth solving, or now it's not the right time to do it?

It doesn't mean that you should never build what other people suggested. On a contrary - the more open you are to other people's ideas, the better. What I'm saying is that it's not right to build something just because it's somebody's idea. First, you need to process it, challenge it, pass through your own vision, the system of values, market, and customer understanding, build your own conviction for or against it and then decide whether you go with it or not.

Doubting yourself and getting stuck

It feels safe and easy to give yourself a free pass, step aside and take the opinion of another person over your own. But once you do it, you shrink in your own eyes. Every single time you do it, you become smaller and smaller and you start doubting yourself in every aspect of your job. It makes it very difficult to break this vicious circle, stand your ground, or make a career move from this position.

But it's not impossible.

How to deal with it?

I don't have a 100% winning recipe yet and probably will never know. But these steps should help:

  • Acknowledge the problem - it is a 50% win already.
  • Set a regular 1:1 with a mentor/coach/manager, work this problem through, and set a plan of attack.
  • Understand your strengths and double down on them.
  • Acknowledge that the fact that you are different is what makes you a great asset and your point of view is valuable exactly because it is different. It's called "diversity".
  • Always think about your customers, their needs, and their problems - they are the main source of truth.
  • Question everything and get to the bottom of the root cause or problem.
  • Ask yourself "Why do I think this is a good idea"? If the answer is "Some smart guy thinks so" - you might need to find more convincing arguments.
  • Prepare better for discussions with people who you might be afraid of. The more prepared you are, the more comfortable you would feel.
  • Write down your successful ideas and projects and reread this list from time to time, it will give you positive reinforcement to drive your ideas forward.
  • Trust that you can improve.
Let's end on a high note. Of course, it's unpleasant to find out that you have a weakness but in fact, this is good news :) It means that you are growing and learning. The most difficult thing is to reflect on yourself and verbalise your weak points. Once you've nailed them down and decided to fight them, nothing can stand in your way. I mean it. The hardest part is done, everything else is a matter of discipline and commitment.

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Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being