What is the big deal about Authority??

Dr Brigid Nossal

The Use of Drawing as an Agent of Transformation: a case presentation

We’re all born to someone bigger and older than ourselves, and in the first years of life, we are completely dependent on our caregivers for survival, nurture and learning the ways of the world. Do we ever stop to wonder how these early experiences and relationships with parents, caregivers, teachers, the school principal shaped the way we think about and respond to authority? What hidden assumptions may have been laid down that continue to impact current work relationships and, indeed, workplace design?

This is the second in a series of short blogs examining the title of NIODA’s forthcoming Group Relations Conference (GRC): ‘Authority, Role and Distributed Leadership in the Hybrid Workplace: the challenge of transforming experience’. Learning about authority and authority relations is one of the key takeaways from a GRC experience and a fundamental aspect of our experience of work.

The GRC is a temporary learning organisation that is co-created by its members (both staff and members). Our task is to study, through the experience of becoming an organisation, the dynamics as they emerge. I think of it as a kind of research laboratory in which we each take up the dual roles of being Jane Goodall and being the community of apes that she was so carefully observing. You can imagine that in this process, authority relations naturally manifest. This offers a unique opportunity to both discover and shape how authority in this temporary system of the GRC is established, negotiated and challenged; by you, by other individuals, by sub-groups and by the membership as a whole. If you bring an open mind to this process, it is really fascinating to explore.

Authority in a GRC can be discovered through what is said, by whom and in what tone, in how decisions are taken, in groups that form and dissolve and in how these things make you feel. For example, do you feel authorised and like you have agency to influence outcomes or do you feel silenced and powerless, as if someone else calls the shots? What is informing this experience? Is it what is really going on right now in the conference, or is it what you assume to be going on based on other similar experiences of being in groups and systems? If you wanted to, what would you need to change to transform the experience you are having? How is this the same or different to what you experience in your work organisation? These are just a few of the questions that are available to conference members to become curious about.

Through exploring and reflecting upon authority relations and our own and others’ responses to those we see as holding positions of authority within the GRC, we have the opportunity to examine what may be familiar and/or previously unchallenged assumptions. For example, there may be someone in the group whose tone of voice, combined with their age, gender and work role always seems to command attention in the group – everyone stops to listen. Why is this so? Another member in a small group, from the moment you first encounter them, may leave you feeling intimidated. What is it about them that makes you feel this way? It is only when we stop to reflect on these questions that we can discover the way past experiences may be shaping current work and authority relations even though, in reality, the situation is very different. Discovering these kinds of hidden assumptions can be very liberating and open up new opportunities for how we perceive and exercise our own authority, our own authorship in our lives.

The invitation in the GRC is to explore dynamics at a number of levels: individual; interpersonal; small group; large group; intergroup and the whole organisational system within its context. So far, we have considered the individual and interpersonal levels of enquiry. There is also much to think about and learn from how authority is being experienced and exercised at these other levels of group, intergroup and system-wide. For example, we can study how authority is resisted and/or how much compliance and conformity seems to be in play within the system. We can consider what cultural, societal, or even global factors may be influencing these authority relations. Is authority experienced and felt in the same way when people gather in small groups from when everyone is together in the room? What kind of authority is listened to and what kind of authority is rejected and rebelled against in this system? How do you feel? What are you observing about how the group seems to be responding in these different configurations? What authority do you want to take up and act upon right now and what do you observe others to be doing?

This offers you just a brief insight into the rich learning that is available to you in a GRC. You can think of the conference as representing a microcosm of contemporary organisations and the authority relations that we assume to be operating within them. Together, we bring these assumptions into the system of the GRC and sometimes reproduce our own experience of authority dynamics just as we experience them in our back-home workplace. By making them explicit and available to be studied, it is then possible to consider, both individually and collectively, is this how we want them to be or, could we be doing things differently and better?

Through taking this deep dive together into the study of authority relations within the GRC, we can emerge after five days with fresh insights and new resources that usually bring clarity about what it is that needs to be transformed in the way we work together in our own organisations. This learning can usually be immediately applied back at work and, from what members say, and from my own experience, it goes on for many years to come.

I hope that you will consider joining us. Scroll to read the other blogs, or learn more here.

Dr Brigid Nossal

July 2023

What is the big deal about Authority?

ps NIODA’s forthcoming Group Relations Conference is 30 October – 3 November 2023. This is a hybrid event both onsite in Melbourne and live interactive online

What is a Group Relations Conference (GRC) and why is it important?

What is the big deal
about Authority?

Why is the idea of 'Role' important?

Distributed leadership - are we up for it?

What is the big deal about Authority?

The Use of Drawing as an Agent of Transformation: a case presentation

Dr Brigid Nossal

NIODA Group Relations Conference Director

Brigid is a co-founder and Director at NIODA. She combines academic teaching, research and supervision with consulting to organisations. For the past 20 years, systems psychodynamics and Group Relations Conferences have been central to her work. She has worked on many GRCs in Australia, the UK, China and India. Brigid directed the 2017 NIODA GRC on the theme, Leadership, Authority and Organisation: exploring creative disruption. Brigid is also a member of GRA and ISPSO.


The National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia (NIODA) offers internationally renowned post-graduate education and research in organisation dynamics, and decades of experience consulting with Australian organisations. 

The study of organisation dynamics brings together socio-technical and psychoanalytic disciplines to explore the unconscious dynamics that exist in every group, team or organisation. Learning more about these theories, and reflecting on the experience of them, can support leaders and managers to unlock great potential in their organisations, tackling issues through a whole new light.

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We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and recognise their enduring sovereignty which has, and continues to, care for Country.
NIODA welcomes the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s invitation to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a collective movement for a better future.

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