The difference between authority and authoritative

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This topic contains 4 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Henry Brown 5 years, 6 months ago.

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  • #178612

    Mark Hammer

    More of a blog than maybe a thread kickstarter, but so be it. I’ll start by admitting it. Part of this is motivated by a personal gripe. However, a fair chunk is guided by observation of organizations and published literature. Hopefully, the brunt of what I have to say will be supported by the latter and not propelled by the former.

    Within organizations, individuals can have authority. That is, decision-making power, and the capacity to over-rule others who report to them, though not the power to over-rule those they report to themselves. People can also be authoritative. That is, they are well-informed, and perhaps even experts, on certain matters. In a perfect world with perfect organizations, those who acquire authority, ought to be authoritative. That is, they are tasked with, and make, the decisions because they know most about the domain within which they are making the decisions.

    But as we are all likely aware, it does not always work that way. I know from serving on a variety of working groups, and following trends, that there can often be categories of very capable employees who want nothing to do with management positions. Scientists and other researchers present a good example of this. They enjoy engaging in research, and do not yearn for the burden of planning budgets, dealing with HRM issues, etc. So finding ready, willing, and able science managers is tough slogging. The IT sector can also present the same challenge. Ultimately, what you can end up with is the folks who know the most about the domains where decisions have to be made NOT being the ones in authority.

    Now, that in itself is not a problem. The first rule of effective management is to surround yourself with competent people, so if you consult them before making decisions, and listen to what they suggest, then authority and authoritative come together via teamwork, like peanut butter and chocolate. Challenge solved, and everybody’s happy.

    But, as I’m sure many here can also attest, consultation is not always the strong suit of every single person in management. Moreover, as is often the case, management can be in possession of privileged knowledge – available ONLY to management – that is critical to the decisions to be made, making it easier to disregard consultation, sometimes for the protection of the exclusivity of that information. It may not be the ONLY information that needs considering, though. Remember, necessary is not the same as sufficient. However, the exclusive nature of the information may be sufficient to persuade the decision-maker that consultation is unnecessary.

    Here, I turn my attention to some of the consequences of the disconnect between authority and authoritativeness. I’ll start with the excellent reports on whistleblowing and disclosures of wrongdoing that the Merit Systems Protection Board has published over the last few years. One of the more striking elements in those reports, was the very sizeable number of disclosures that were effectively dismissed by the courts and various adjudicating bodies as “debatable managerial decisions”. That is, it may have been an absolutely dumb thing to do, but it was within the legal authorities of the manager, hence not “wrongdoing” or malfeasance, strictly speaking, and not covered under the law, much to the dismay of the disclosers.

    So how do such instances come about, where an employee feels compelled to “blow the whistle” on a manager? This is where I feel that the link between authority and authoritativeness has been broken. The individual/s disclosed about may or may not have known what the discloser felt ought to be considered. Perhaps they knew, but treated it, appropriately or not, as third tier information. What I feel is critical here is that the discloser believed they brought important authoritative knowledge to bear on the decision, but were not consulted, and the information they viewed as critical, seemingly not incorporated into the decision. In other words, they perceived themselves as legitimately authoritative voices with respect to the decision being made, but were disregarded by those in authority.

    The disconnect pertains not only to whistleblowing, but to employee engagement as well. Danielle Blumenthal started a very good thread on the issue of receiving credit, and credit-seeking as an obstacle to optimal organizational functioning. At the same time, Henry Brown directed our attention in another thread to a TED talk by psychologist Dan Ariely on employee motivation, and the role that qualities of outcomes can have on persistence and effort. I’ll ask the linking question: what is it that those who possess authoritative knowledge, but not the authority to take action, need to facilitate their own performance and effort? A lot of times, it is simply consultation by those in authority. A thank you is also good from time to time, and some folks really really need a plaque on their office wall. But for a lot of folks, the vindication, the justification of their effort, comes in the form of having those making the decisions turn to you, ask for your advice, and implement your advice in the decision-making. The authority and the authoritative become linked, and the advice-giver finds justification for their continuing knowledge-acquisition – because it gets used by those making decisions.

    Within the public service, of course, there is an extra layer over top of this, in that elected (or politically appointed) policy-makers can ignore the authoritative advice of senior bureaucrats who may have gone to great lengths to link authority and authoritativeness every step of the way within their own organizations. There may be cogent reasons for ignoring that advice – again, the phenomenon of privileged knowledge available only to those policy decision-makers (e.g., an upcoming budget) – but I suspect even the upper echelons are not immune to the discouraging effect of feeling that disconnect between authoritativeness and authority. They’re just a little more professional in how they handle it.

    So how does one go about reconnecting the two: authority and authoritativeness? I think that is a very critical mission for any organization, made all the more difficult by the inevitable flux and turnover within organizations. After all, their linkge is fundamentally about relationships, not rules. I ask you for your expert advice in making a decision because I trust you. I don’t trust you by statute or policy, though. I may be cajoled into speaking with you by policy, but I heed your advice because I know and trust you, and trust is a relationship thing. How do organizations go about facilitating knowledge of whose knowledge to turn to and trust in making decisions. How does one facilitate consultation without making those in authority appear like they have none (i.e., weak)?

    Big big tasks, at all levels, for any organization, public or private.

  • #178620

    Henry Brown

    The only thing that I would add to this excellent post is the key to trust and by inference connecting authority and authoritativeness is COMMUNICATION Remembering that communication is always a two-way process

  • #178618

    So the question is – what are the rules for an effective working relationship between authorities (leaders and managers) and those with authoritative knowledge (technical experts)?

    And the prompt for the question is that this traditionally decent relationship has deteriorated.

    Reasons for that disconnect:

    1. When younger more inexperienced people manage older experienced people

    2. When politicals manage civil servants

    3. When external factors prompt a rush to change established norms and safeguards

    The step by step deterioration usually goes something like this:

    1. Expert sees problem that leader or manager does not OR leader or manager makes unrealistic demands or does something inadvisable

    2. Expert tries to bring it to leader or manager’s attention

    3. Expert is ignored

    4. Expert blows whistle

    5. Expert suffers retaliation

    …and at that point it can easily tip over into an ugly, costly, public, drawn-out legal matter, fodder for the headlines.

    From my own observation here are some things that authorities and authoritative experts can do to eliminate the disconnect:

    All Parties:
    1. Have respect for what the other person can do – these are different skill sets

    2. Appreciate the pressure on the other person

    3. Focus on fixing the problem, don’t make it a power struggle

    4. Insist on having a process, even if the process is to suspend process – minimize chaos and confusion

    5. Make it a practice to consult formally or informally with third party experts outside the immediate work unit – don’t fall into the insularity trap, where your world becomes the whole world

    For leaders & managers:

    * Call on the right person to do the right job – never work with an expert through an expert’s boss and never randomly assign a task to someone who is expert in a very particular thing

    * Give experts special projects – they actually like those, it’s not a negative thing

    * Verbalize to the expert how much you appreciate their skills in XYZ – and be very specific about those skills, experts hate phony b.s. talk and meaningless compliments; praise the in public

    * Give them a wide swath of control over the work, their time, their personal space

    * Don’t turn experts into project managers, they are not administrative types and they are not team thinkers either

    * Leave the expert alone unless you need them – do not take up their time needlessly; never micromanage

    * Do not make a big deal about every little thing – know when to let things pass; avoid needless confrontation

    * Treat the expert as a peer

    * Never ask an expert to do something you know is wrong.

    For experts:

    * Respond to requests for help right away – pick up the phone, answer the email

    * Work extremely hard and produce – don’t just spin your wheels

    * Do a great job at whatever THEY need – understand that there is political and cultural stuff going on all the time, and you are a part of that show – it’s not always going to make sense to you

    * Be proud of what you know, but keep the ego out of it – you’re not the only expert in the world

    * Tone down the language, e.g. be diplomatic

    * Talk about evidence not opinion

    * Offer solutions that can be implemented, not pie in the sky

    * Make the authority look good where possible

    * Say: I am going to speak truth to power – then say it respectfully (never mouth off)

    * Never go along with wrongdoing.

  • #178616

    Mark Hammer

    Thanks Henry and Danielle. I would not expect anything less than sage articulate advice, and that’s what I got.

    I honestly can’t say, Danielle, that things are getting worse (i.e., relationships have deteriorated). Not that they are improving in any sense, but I have no evidence that they ever used to be fabulous. I’m sure our parents and grandparents could supply us with plenty of examples of the same frustration I’ve voiced.

    However, what I do think may be happening a little more these days, is churn within the management/executive community. Folks in leadership roles tend to move around more than the rest of us, and with the hiring freezes of the 90’s, many governments found themselves with an older workforce, and eventually a wave of retirements at the top over the past half-dozen years. That, in turn, opened up a lot of positions at the top, and a lot of movement and career hopscotch ensued.

    The landscape that results is that more of those in leadership roles may have less knowledge about just who IS “the expert on X” within their organization. And even when they have some nominal awareness, they may have never interacted with that person so as to be persuaded of that individual’s expertise, by witnessing it firsthand. I know I’ve sat in on, and contributed to, meetings where you could almost hear management muttering under the breath “Holy crap! The guy’s right. How could we have missed that aspect? Glad we caught it now.”. But those who have only recently landed in a leader’s seat won’t know me from a hole in the dirt, and I imagine that is a scenario played out many thousands of times across hundreds of organizations. I don’t know how long it takes to learn who the “authorities” are within an organization (and it will probably vary by size, and where one is in the reporting hierarchy), but it doesn’t happen overnight.

    So one of the big challenges, as I see it, is to instrumentally connect new leaders with the authoritative expertise within their organization, rather than simply wait for time and coincidence to run its course. I’m talking formal organizational protocol. Note that this is entirely different than “talent management”, which is diffuse and prospective in nature. It’s more a question of “When I need to make a decision about X, I need to speak to person/s Y and Z”. And as my meeting example in the preceding paragraph illustrates, it’s more than a matter of handing someone a list of “she knows a lot about A, he knows lots about B,….”. Consultation in management is always a matter of trusting that someone else’s purposes align with your own; that there is some stewardship involved in their reasoning. So the connecting of authority and authoritativeness will necessarily have to involve bringing the experts into some decision-making exercise so as to illustrate why their judgment should be trusted. Otherwise they will not be consulted any more than if there was no such list of experts in the first place. If there is to be a bridge between authority and the authoritative, it must be built on the voluntary actions of those in authority. The challenge lies in how to instill and entrench that reflex, and build it into the organizational culture such that the thought of appearing weak (by virtue of consultation) never enters the authority-figure’s mind..

  • #178614

    The point you’re making about connecting “churned” leaders with capable experts makes a lot of sense. There is a converging body of thought suggesting that the workplace of the future will not wait for leaders to find experts – hierarchy is old school and so is matrix management – too slow, too complicated, impossible to administer.

    Rather we will assemble “flash mobs” of talent as a job needs to be done, then dissolve them afterward.

    “In the traditional company — and agency — structure, multiple layers of personnel exist for a purpose that often amounts to moving information around…Under the emerging new approach, “what you see happen over and over again…is that you just don’t have those middle layers”…”What happens when you release information [is that] people on an individual level create their own networks outside their offices,” said Karina Homme, senior director of social enterprise transformation at “People can now create communities around their interest areas.”

    In the new world it will be the networkers who survive.

    The litmus test for success will be 360 peer feedback.

    “Just about every company has its own version of a 360 degree feedback process. Nevertheless, Vineet saw several problems with HCLT’s off-the-shelf approach. First, it didn’t focus explicitly on how managers were impacting those in the value zone. Second, employees fearful of retaliation often pulled their punches when reviewing their supervisor. And third, the fact that feedback could only come from one’s immediate colleagues tended to reinforce long-standing organization silos. Today, HCLT employees are able to rate the performance of any manager whose decisions impact their work lives, and to do so anonymously.”

    I would not be surprised if eventually there were a website that followed you across the span of your whole career (possibly appended to LinkedIn) where people who had worked with you, and whose identities could be verified, then rated your skills and expertise. Like your avatar.

    (Someone just read this and made a billion dollars.)

    The other thing is that people who are proficient and engaged on networks like Yammer, GovLoop, etc. are going to be the ones called to join project teams.

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