Deference or Collaboration: pick one.

There’s this church near my house, with a statue of Mary Magdalene. She’s the picture of deference.

As a child and as a Christian, I was raised to see deference as a virtue, to find this statue beautiful. As an adult and as a systems thinker, I learned that deference is dangerous.

Nora Bateson pointed it out: “How can there be real communication when there is deference to a leader? This imbalance creates a hold-back of contribution and interaction.”

An attitude of deference — of respectfully, quietly acquiescing to a person in authority — harms both parties. The deferent ones go unheard, their ideas and needs unvoiced, as they work as an extension of the one in authority. That person goes uninformed, ignorant of a reality clear to lower layers of the hierarchy.

Please distinguish this attitude of deference from conscious deferral to authority. Authority is essential for working in large groups. When I tell my manager or CEO that I disagree, and here is why, and here are my ideas for what to do instead, they can make a decision with full information. And I defer to their authority, with full dignity and enthusiasm. It’s their job to have more information than I do. It’s my job to share the relevant information I do have. This is collaboration.

Deference is not essential to authority; deferral will do. Deference deprives leaders of information. They don’t hear alternatives, they don’t hear dangers. At an extreme, demands for deference leave leaders ignorant of how the real world works. Their decisions will suffer.

I don’t want to be deferent to my manager; I want to be honest, and defer when needed. I don’t want my children to be deferent to me; I want them to share their needs, negotiate, and learn. There are exceptions: “get out of the street! 1–2–3–”, and they do before the count reaches five. When we can’t reach agreement: “You don’t have to want to go, but you do have to go” to your sister’s concert. Other times they find solutions that hadn’t occurred to me.

In a culture that lauds deference, a person has two choices: act as an extension of an authority figure, or become an authority figure and demand deference from others. Both are inferior to collaboration. Both are ingressive, neither congressive. As a value, deference is toxic.

The alternative to deference is not defiance. It is mutual respect and learning. It is collaboration.