Signs Your Organization is Authoritarian (Part 1: Deflecting Criticism)

Authoritarianism isn’t always obvious. Sometimes, it infects an organization slowly, progressing for years before members realize (or admit) what has happened.

If you’ve ever had a gut feeling that something just isn’t right with your organization’s leadership, think back to the last time a member criticized the organization. How did the leaders respond? Did they use any of the words or phrases below?

This list covers some of the most common deflection techniques used by authoritarians. The more of these you hear, the more likely your organization is under authoritarian leadership.

Painting critics as small and irrelevant minorities:

  • “We haven’t received any complaints before you raised this.”
  • “We asked members about this and nobody had a problem with it.”
  • “Other members support what we’re doing, maybe you should talk to them.”
  • Critics are referred to as “fringe”, “isolated”, “small”, “minority”.

Questioning motivations and loyalty:

  • “You obviously have an axe to grind.”
  • Critics are “disgruntled”, or angry about past “failures”.
  • “Are you a member of [opposing organization]?”
  • “Are you a supporter of [opposing or shunned ideology]?”

De-prioritizing criticism:

  • “This isn’t the time to discuss [issue], we’re in the middle of [circumstance].”
  • “You’re distracting from the crucial work we’re trying to do here.”
  • “I’m too busy with [duty or task] to worry about that.”
  • “It’s not the goal of our organization to be perfect at [criticized area]. I think we’re doing fine and the focus should be on [primary goal].”

Using procedure and form as weapons:

  • “You had an opportunity to comment and you didn’t participate.”
  • “You should have gone through official channels instead of bothering your fellow members with this.”
  • “If you want us to take your complaint seriously, you need to at least put in the effort to follow proper procedures.”
  • “We’re always willing to listen to suggestions, but your tone is too disrespectful/aggressive.”

Appealing to arm’s-length authorities or outside authorities:

  • “You already went through official channels, and they rejected your complaint.”
  • “All the [type of expert] we’ve asked about this think it’s excellent.”
  • “We had this vetted/reviewed by [expert] and they found no problems.”
  • “This is entirely legal.”
  • “We were cleared of all wrong-doing by [expert].”

Appealing to their own experience or position:

  • “We’ve done this plenty of times and we know what we’re doing.”
  • “People who don’t participate often misunderstand this.”
  • “There’s a reason you’re not [title or position] and I am.”
  • “We have X years of experience with this.”
  • “Our team includes [list past titles of authority figures].”

Treating criticism as distasteful or gauche:

  • “Your constant complaining is divisive.”
  • “You’re just a troublemaker.”
  • “This is disgusting”; “I’m disgusted by this.”
  • “This is not what people come here for.”
  • “This isn’t the time or place.”


Remember, it’s not uncommon to hear these phrases from other members who are not authorities within the organization.  It’s also not uncommon to hear these phrases on rare occasions from authority figures if they are frustrated or exasperated.

However, if you hear these phrases regularly from authority figures, then it’s likely your organization is actively suppressing criticism.

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