Power versus Authority

By Greg Fisher

I have recently been involved in conversations about the difference between power and formal authority in organisations.  It is an important distinction which I’d like to explore in this article.

The parts of the management science literature that refer to and borrow from Complexity theory tend to define formal authority in line with conventional language i.e. it is the authority conveyed on someone in an organisation due to their official role.  On the other hand, power is a trickier concept to grasp and it is also more vague.  Here I refer to power as the ability of one person to influence the actions of, or outcomes relating to, another person (or other people).

There has been some very good work in the management science literature distinguishing between these two concepts.  In what Ralph Stacey refers to as “the dominant discourse” in management science, the two concepts can be conflated.  This is typical of a deterministic framing: power is considered to be the same as formal authority and the formal hierarchy of an organisation can be viewed as the “map of power”.
But the two concepts are different and writers like Stacey have helped to distinguish the two.  Consider, for example, a CEO’s secretary.  In terms of formal authority, in most organisations this secretary will have very little formal authority, mainly working for the CEO.  But in many organisations, the power of this secretary is substantially greater than the formal authority bestowed upon that person.  This is because the secretary is often the gatekeeper to the CEO, a fact that can be used by the secretary to influence other people i.e. it confers power on them.  It is best to keep in such people’s “good books” else you might find your access to the CEO limited or frustrated.

Equivalently, I leant very quickly when I spent some time in the Reserve Forces that it was essential to get on well with the people running “stores” i.e. those who issued equipment.  Most of the people running stores were fairly junior in rank (in my experience, they were mainly Lance Corporals and Sergeants) but the power these people had was often substantial.  The success of most operations and training exercise was contingent on the resources issues by “stores”.  They knew it and, again, it was important to keep on good terms with these people.  A more obvious military example is to compare the power of a young officer (who, say, has formal responsible for, and authority over, a platoon) with that of an experienced Sergeant Major.  Officers formally outrank sergeant major but in reality the latter often have substantially more power than the former.  I have witnessed first hand sergeant majors screaming instructions to officers while maintaining the etiquette of “Sir” or “Ma’am”.

The idea of power relates to what some refer to as the shadow network in an organisation.  This is distinct from the formal hierarchy.  Think of a flat network map that contains all of the informal relationships between people in an organisation, including “coffee machine gossip”.  This might include links representing who knows who and it might also include some measure of the real power of each person i.e. their ability to influence others.  This picture of an informal network, which is distinct from a formal hierarchy, is often useful to keep in mind when thinking about the real nature of organisations.

A key point I want to emphasise in this article is that it is useful to distinguish between power and formal authority but the two should not be completely dis-associated because formal authority often confers power on people.  This might sound obvious but I have noted in some work and in some conversations an implicit belief that all people can subvert formal authority in all organisations all of the time.  This would mean that formal authority is irrelevant and that only power matters.  In some contexts this might not be unreasonable but I think the point can be exaggerated.  I can understand why this over-generalisation might have emerged, as a reaction to the deterministic world-view of the dominant discourse, which is at the other end of the spectrum.

Reality lies somewhere in between.  This question about extremes can also be seen in the discussion about universal laws and randomness in my article Patterns Amid Complexity (reality is somewhere in between and involves ephemeral patterns).

In the context of this article I am saying that neither the deterministic view of formal authority nor the opposite view – that formal authority is irrelevant – is true.  I view power as the more important concept because it defines the real influence a person has over others but power can arise because of formal authority, which I have seen in all of the organisations I have worked in.  I suspect this would be so obvious to some readers that they would find it odd that I would bother to make the point at all: I am reacting to those who think formal authority is irrelevant.

Clearly, context matters.  There are probably situations and organisations in which power = formal authority and others in which there is zero association.  But neither of these will be true in all circumstances.  The world is grey: often formal authority conveys some power on some people.

A real world example would be the power that people who decide on the national curriculum and the inspectors of schools have over teachers.  At one end of the spectrum, the deterministic view would have you believe that teachers are controlled by those with formal authority vis-à-vis the curriculum and also by the inspectorate.  In this view, teachers have no free will and no discretion.  At the other end of the spectrum, the view would be that all teachers have the ability to completely subvert the curriculum i.e. to teach anything they want, and they can ignore school inspectors.  My point in this article is to, well, synthesise these two views.  Surely reality is somewhere in between, most of the time.

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3 Responses to “Power versus Authority”

  1. This piece explains why during my military service I focused (intuitively) on cultivating better relationships with the cooks .than with the officers

  2. Zoltan says:

    Interesting and agreed, but surely there is more. Power is I believe defined as the ability to influence. The “more” is that real power is the ability to influence things to act in accordance with one’s goals. Therein the complexity.

    Does an incompetent Chief Executive really have power? Sure they can bring the organisation down. But can they make it a success? Probably not.

    Does a low-ranking but competent member of staff have power? Perhaps they cannot influence the strategic direction of the organisation, but they have good working relationships and are happy and fulfilled. What more can a person want?

    Unless we take the time to understand “power” as the ability to influence and hopefully achieve the goals we really desire, we will be caught in a race towards something two-dimensional and impersonal that we might not even really want.

    One might go further and speculate as to how many “powerful” people are compensating for a lack of real power in their lives. That’s not the point of this entry, more an example of the need for each of us to understand what power means to us.

    • gregfisher says:

      thanks Zoltan,

      Yes, there’s a lot more to say on this subject but I have to keep the number of words down in a blog article… My definition of power is similar to yours in that I also emphasise influence rather than control, which was a key part of your reply (for me). In your example of the incompetent CEO, his formal role conveys power on him to influence people in the organisation (“do this or you’re sacked”) but he cannot fully control people, nor control for success.

      Best wishes,

      Greg

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