Kinds of Organizational Authority:
by Rick Brenner
A clear understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found in organizations. Here's Part I of a little catalog of authority classes.
David Addington, John Yoo, and Chris Schroeder testify before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 26, 2008. Mr. Addington was was legal counsel (2001-2005) and chief of staff (2005-2009) to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Schroeder was in charge of the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) during the early years of the war on terror. Mr. Yoo worked in that office, authoring many internal memoranda about the use of torture. Generally, his position on torture was that the President could order torture, despite many laws prohibiting it, on the basis of his "constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack." The OLC is invested with legal and regulatory authority within the White House. It is this authority that was used to justify the use of torture. We may never know what happened or did not happen during those years, and we may never know definitively whether any crimes occurred. What does seem clear, however, is that the Presidency "captured" the OLC, in the sense that the OLC did not act as an independent legal authority. During those years, the Presidency was able to obtain whatever rulings it wanted to pursue the war on terror. Another example of capturing of legal authority within the U.S. administration is the string of events known colloquially as the "Saturday Night Massacre" — the firing of Archibald Cox in 1973
during the Watergate scandal.
The capturing of cognitive authorities, legal authorities, and administrative authorities does happen. When it does, the organization is at risk of undertaking self-destructive actions. Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.
In the first installment of this series, we examined the interrelationships between power, authority, and influence, emphasizing the value that a systems view provides. Let's take a closer look now at the kinds of authority we find in organizations, beginning with kinds most often recognized as formal.
- Cognitive authority
- This term, coined by Patrick Wilson, denotes authority that influences thoughts that people consciously recognize as proper. It's specific to some particular field of knowledge. People usually confer it only upon someone whom they consider influential. In organizations, a common form of cognitive authority relates to the organization's mission and work. Since the organization's work usually factors into weakly interacting cells, its cognitive authority usually factors similarly.
- We're most comfortable citing cognitive authority. Even when we must yield to other kinds of authority, we sometimes seek cognitive authority to support our choices. We call this process "rationalization."
- Legal or regulatory authority
- Because laws and regulations can constrain everything we do, this form of cognitive authority deserves special attention. Since it is one of the few forms of cognitive authority that doesn't factor easily into cells, those who possess it usually work closely with those at the center of power.
- Ironically, legal authorities don't necessarily understand how to apply their authority in detail to the organization's work. Collaboration between legal experts and content experts is often necessary. The need for this collaboration is not always fully appreciated.
- Administrative authority
- Since this is the authority vested in an organizational position, it is sometimes (somewhat illegitimately) called "legitimate" authority. Administrative authority is thus founded on three relationships: that between the bearer of the authority and the organization; that between the organization and the conferrer; and that between the conferrer and the bearer.
- For some, being influenced by administrative authority is difficult, because it entails acknowledging one's own inferior station in the organization. On the other hand, to some, using administrative authority can also be difficult, because it can feel like saying, For some, being influenced by
administrative authority is
difficult, because it entails
acknowledging one's own
inferior station in
the organization"Because I said so." Thus the exercise of administrative authority can be stressful to the relationship for both parties. This can lead both of them to seek the haven of cognitive authority, real or illusory.
- Resource authority
- This authority derives from control of inanimate resources, such as facilities, equipment, or finance. Although it's usually a form of administrative authority, resource authority is unique in that it excludes administrative authority over the people. Exercising resource authority as a means of influence entails, for example, the using rewards, rationing, withholding, bribing, granting, secreting, scheduling, and so on.
- Using resource authority can be constructive or destructive for relationships. It can be facilitative or coercive. And there are gray areas: people can assert authority over resources that aren't formally theirs to control. Resource authority can thus be fertile territory for political wrangling.
Next time we'll investigate less formal kinds of authority. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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