‘Authority’ is an interesting word. In modern usage it suggests the right to undertake a particular course of action, compel compliance or demand a particular outcome. However, in ancient Greek the word ‘exousia’, most often translated as ‘authority’, was also translated as ‘right’ or ‘power’ particularly in the sense of exercising moral influence.
Hence the English word ‘authority’ is a multi-layered term ranging from the enforceable right to demand compliance in a particular context to the moral permission and respect one person gives another in a particular relationship. In the workplace therefore we can identify four types of authority – positional, experience, spiritual and relational. Let’s take a few moments to consider each.
- Positional –As the name implies positional authority is the enforceable power attributable to a person’s role or position in a specific organization. It implies the right to insist on compliance with appropriate instructions or directions. Typical workplace examples would be a manager instructing a direct report to perform an action relevant to that employee’s role or to adhere to certain workplace protocols such as workplace health and safety requirements. A community example would be a police officer instructing a vehicle driver not to park in a non-parking zone. Positional authority is a formal, hierarchical and enforceable model of authority based on the ‘leader’s’ status and position in an organization or society. Implicit with it is the threat that some form of punishment would be applied if not obeyed.
- Experience – This level or authority arises from a person’s established expertise in a specific field or skillset. The key here is that the experience must be recognised and valued by the person or group who could potentially benefit from it. For example, if you’re facing an operation you might want to check on your surgeon’s success rate with that particular procedure. In the workplace, experience based authority would arise for example when an employee agrees to be mentored by a peer who has more expertise in a complex task. Authority due to a person’s recognised experience carries no formal power, rather it is based on the receiver’s recognition of that person’s skill and often their character.
- Spiritual – Spiritual authority is not the same as religious authority; the latter being based on a person’s role, position or title in a particular religious community. ‘… the essential elements of spirituality include (1) transcendence of self which usually manifest in a sense of calling or destiny, and (ii) belief that one’s activities have meaning and value beyond economic benefits or self gratification’ (on-line Abstract “Spiritual Leadership in the workplace: Perspectives and theories, Yishuang Meng). Spiritual authority in leadership is therefore the kind of leadership that helps people discover a sense of meaning and vocation in their roles. It is the kind of leadership that creates a culture that honours goodness, fairness, care and integrity whereby employees feel safe and experience growth and meaning in their work as they make a genuine contribution to not only their organization but also to the lives of others.
- Relational – Relational authority is that level of authority given to a person based on respect and trust that the giver of the authority has for the other. Similar to spiritual authority, relational authority has a moral and ethical dimension. People who hold relational authority have, through the consistency of their words and actions, created a safety zone whereby their ideas and suggestions carry weight and influence for those who recognise it. For example, one of my clients whom I have been coaching for at least 7 years recently told me he often tells people, ‘I hate Graham – he holds me accountable for what I tell him I want to do but am really uncomfortable about doing! But I also love him!’ Coaches and consultants rely largely on relational authority together (hopefully) with some level of authority from experience.
The Bottom Line
Traditionally, employers have relied mainly on positional authority to get things done. Increasingly however, positional authority is becoming less effective in contemporary organizations. The implied threat of reprisals has rarely motivated employees. They may comply but will seldom be motivated to give their best to their work when feeling threatened. Between 2005-2008 the Gallup organization randomly surveyed 10,000 people who were asked two questions: (i) What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life; (ii) List three words that best describe what this leader contributes to your life. From all those who were surveyed the top four answers were: trust, stability, compassion and hope. (Research published in ‘Strengths Based Leadership’, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, pp 80-91)
Trust, stability, compassion and hope – all relational words! The point is leaders can no longer rely on positional authority or even the authority that comes from experience. There may be times of course when leaders might use, as appropriate, all four types of authority. However, this article claims the foundational authority level to use is relational, while seeking to ensure the spiritual dimensions of employees’ needs are honoured. After all, the authority that employees, and indeed most people, ultimately respond to is relational.