AuthorityThis is a tough topic to address. We live in an age where the rights of the individual top the interests of a group. However, in a business context it is critical that we understand authority; it’s role, it’s use, and it’s consequences. Without authority a business cannot succeed. The issues is not one of “if there must be authority” but rather “how there should be authority”.

It’s a contract

Once an individual agrees to receive compensation in the form of a pay cheque there is a contract formed. You agree to fulfil the obligations of your job description in return for that compensation. By virtue of this contract you are working under some authority. That is the nature of a contract. Granted, the contract holder, the employer also has obligations as governed by law and business precedence.

The point is that, like it or not, you are under contractual authority. But let’s move on.

How to use authority

Rarely is the short answer! The use of authority should be an act of last resort. But when you have to use authority it should be used with quiet confidence and respect. Implied use of authority is a great way to exercise authority. An example of this would be “I need you to do XYZ because it is key to ABC objective. Can you please start work on that now? Thanks.” The tone of voice is critical. It must not be demanding. Rather, it should be conversational. A hard use of authority would be something like this. “Stop what you are doing and do XYZ.”

When to use your authority

As a leader you are obligated to manage your human, financial, and hard assets to achieve the objectives within your scope of responsibilities. You must discharge this responsibility seriously. Often this means that you have to manage problem staff or problem peers.

A staff example: There are a clear set of HR processes for managing and documenting the misbehaviour of staff. Understand the processes and adhere to them. Use your authority as required. You cannot allow ongoing poor contributions from a staff member. An old adage is “good news long and slow, bad news fast and furious”. Once you have exhausted fair efforts to change staff behaviour you need to shift into action mode with decisive decisions.

For problem peers I typically work on a three step process.

  1. I work to explain the challenge to ensure that we are on the same page regarding the challenge.
  2. If nothing changes I restate and highlight the business impacts and advise that the business cannot continue to realize the impact(s).
  3. I escalate to upper management. I can now demonstrate that a reasonable effort to work together was made and that I have exhausted my efforts to correct the problem.

Alternatives to using authority

Good leaders don’t use their authority unless they have to. The best leadership tools are things like;

  • Demonstrating value and appreciation for staff contribution
  • Making the work space respectful and fun
  • Enabling work diversity when and where possible to develop skills
  • Allow a sense of individuality in work styles
  • Enabling a “token” reward system for departments
  • Championing for fair compensation
  • Create and champion an inclusive and fair work environment

This doesn’t sound like using authority does it?  These tools create an environment where staff feel respected and appreciated. This will translate into a willingness to work with a sense of engagement. This may seem counter intuitive but this is the best context for building a self-motivated team. Self-motivation is the best alternative to the use of authority.

Typical “fails” in using authority

There are a number of typical mistakes that new leaders make when exercising authority. This includes confusing earned respect from demanded respect. Not understanding positional authority versus personal reputation based authority. You can get the same or better results when you ask, versus tell, when assigning tasks to someone. Dropping common courtesy should never be an option; please and thank-you should be mandatory for leaders. Another common error is assuming that having a title makes you better then staff – it doesn’t.

Rare special use of authority

There are rare occasions when you need to use your authority like a hot knife through butter. Good managers need to learn to not shy away from these “champion” events.

  • Stopping the corporate bully. Don’t let this happen, ever.
  • Allowing the quiet or shy to have a voice.
  • Defending your staff from senior management when the staff are in the right in a “punishable” event.
  • Demanding respect from clients in how they treat your staff.
  • Defending your staff from senior managements excessive use of authority

The authority conundrum

You often have it but can’t or shouldn’t use it. Or, when you need it you don’t have it! The bottom line is that good management skills are you best set of tools enabling you to reserve the use of authority as a line of last action.

How do you use authority? What are some good and bad examples of authority use that you can think of?

David Reimer


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