Navigating the Authority Gradient #1

- english authority gradient jenny lord psychological safety Sep 06, 2023

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a colleague. We were discussing an incident we’d heard about where an experienced diver had died, seemingly from going too deep on a single tank of air. My colleague couldn’t understand why nobody stopped the diver from carrying out his plan, so I told her the following story.

A few years ago a friend of mine lost his GoPro at a dive site not far from me, which has a bottom of around 100m (330ft). I realised I had the gas prepared to be able to do such a dive, so told my boss that I would go and look for the GoPro that afternoon, after I had completed the dive that I was scheduled for in the morning, a 45m training dive. She nodded and agreed, and off I went to do my first dive. Having had a realisation myself, when I got back at lunchtime I pulled my boss aside and asked why she had agreed to me doing another, deeper dive that afternoon having already done one deep deco dive that day, which would be contrary to our normal standards. She shook her head, looked sheepish and said “well I did think it was a bit weird but I figured you know what you’re doing”.

I asked my colleague what she would have done in that situation (even though she also understood that was against all norms). She smiled, shook her head and said “yeah, I guess I would have said the same thing as the boss”.

Herein lies the difficulty with authority gradient. Authority gradient is when there is a perceived difference in status between two or more people in a team. In this case, they saw me as being above them due to my certification level and experience being greater than theirs (despite my boss clearly being above me in the structure of the company). I try very hard to make sure everyone who works with me has a high degree of psychological safety and can challenge me without fear of repercussions. And yet as this story proves, even when I make a mistake, there is still a reluctance to do that. 

How to reduce the authority gradient?

The easiest way to do this is to understand how it’s built and increases in the first place. As I mentioned, the perceived difference in status is what creates it in the first place. It is increased when that status is magnified. And it becomes hard to challenge when there is low psychological safety, in other words team members aren’t encouraged to challenge people “above” them, or maybe at worst case are even punished for it. So to reduce it the first thing we need to do is build psychological safety. This can not be forced or faked. It is done by instructors, managers or people who are perceived as being higher up accepting challenges from students or workers. This involves genuine acceptance by those at the top, along with good communication from all. Everyone needs to accept that they are fallible, that they make mistakes and when they do, own those mistakes and try to work out how to prevent them happening again. Unfortunately in diving the egotistical instructor is a stereotype for a reason; I’m sure we have all seen plenty of them. The person who has been doing this for decades and seen it all, done it all can be a difficult person to help see that they also sometimes make mistakes. In a safe environment, everyone should be encouraged to share mistakes that they make to allow others to learn from them. The more details we can share, the more learning can take place. In the DeBRIEF model we use at The Human Diver the “E” stands for Example, where the person leading the debrief shares a mistake or error that they made in order to set a non-judgemental tone which hopefully will help encourage others to share their mistakes knowing that they won’t be ridiculed or punished for them.

The second way to help reduce the authority gradient is slightly more difficult as it can be hard to change people’s perception of a difference in status. The best boss I ever had proved himself to me when he literally rolled up his shirt sleeves and helped us with the cleaning, insisting that he be the one to clean the toilets as he didn’t expect any of us to have to do it. This helped us all see that he was “one of us”, not someone who disappeared to their office when there was hard work to be done. Yes, he did often have to do that (after all his job was to run the company) but every now and then he’d muck in with us.

Increasing people’s skills and knowledge will also help. The more someone understands something, the greater the chance that they will question it if there is something that seems unusual or outside of the norm.

None of these methods are perfect. As proved by my first story, sometimes the authority gradient will prevent people from speaking up even if you have tried to reduce it as much as you can. After the chat with my colleague I realised I needed to help her feel like she could say something if she saw me doing something that didn’t seem right. In this case, increasing her skills and knowledge will hopefully help give her the tools she needs to do this. Hopefully she will challenge me on the next mistake I make!

For more detail, here is a series of articles about how to build psychological safety in a team:

Jenny is a full-time technical diving instructor and safety diver. Prior to diving, she worked in outdoor education for 10 years teaching rock climbing, white water kayaking and canoeing, sailing, skiing, caving and cycling, among other sports. Her interest in team development started with outdoor education, using it as a tool to help people learn more about communication, planning and teamwork.

Since 2009 she has lived in Dahab, Egypt teaching SCUBA diving. She is now a technical instructor trainer for TDI, advanced trimix instructor, advanced mixed gas CCR diver and helitrox CCR instructor.

Jenny has supported a number of deep dives as part of H2O divers dive team and works as a safety diver in the media industry.

If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.