Authority and alienation

Chapter VII describes how authority is used in organizations, and especially its role in the decision-making process. It will be informative to link that discussion of authority with the discussion of work satisfaction in the commentary to Chapter VI.

Sometimes it is said that the main problem with organizations is that they require people to exercise and to accept authority—as they certainly do—and that authority is inimical to the mature development of the human personality.69 Acceptance of authority, it is said by these critics, induces attitudes of dependency and passivity and inhibits self-actualization.

Accepting authority in an organization, we have seen, means accepting premises provided by other organization members as part of the basis for one’s own behavior. There are many reasons why people might accept a greater or lesser exercise of authority over their behavior. If the premises employees are asked to accept and the things they are asked to do are not antithetical to their own beliefs and values, they may regard a wage or some other kind of extrinsic reward as a sufficient reason for acceptance. A belief that the organization’s product was socially valuable, or valuable to the employee, would provide additional reasons for acceptance. That is to say, authority might be obeyed in an organization because it was believed that the authority stmcture was instrumental in getting the organization’s job done, and because the utility of getting that job done was accepted by reason of either intrinsic or extrinsic motives.

When authority is exercised in this way and accepted with these motives, there is no reason to suppose that most people regard it as demeaning, or that it creates attitudes of dependency and passivity in them. It is a myth—widely believed but not less mythical for that—that people are most creative when they are most free. All of the psychological evidence suggests instead that people are most creative, and most capable of self- actualization, when their environment provides them with an appropriate amount of structure, not too much and not too little. When the environment is too strictly structured, creativity suffers from lack of opportunities for exploration and problem-solving. When the environment demands too little, creativity suffers for lack of structure that can be discovered and exploited. The Gothic cathedrals are a great example of the flowering of creativity operating within a framework of strict physical and social constraints, imposed by the law of gravity and the tenets of religion, respectively. There is no reason to believe that more freedom would have made the cathedral builders more creative.

Human beings seek to satisfy in organizations a wide variety of needs— including needs for achievement, for affiliation with others, and for power. Organizations can be cogent instruments for satisfying needs for achievement and affiliation, and to the extent to which these needs predominate among their members, the exercise of authority creates no special problems. With needs for power, matters are different, for if these needs are satisfied for those who exercise power, they are thwarted for those who submit to it.

The contemporary challenge to authority in organizations may well be a symptom of a more general shift in our society from concerns with achievement and affiliation to concerns with power. Certainly the same challenge to authority has affected instituti ons like the family, including parent-child relations. There is narrower and more reluctant acceptance of authority than in the past in all our social institutions, and not just in formal organizations. Most of us would, I think, regard the muting of authority that has taken place in our lifetimes as desirable. It does not the distribution of power rather than the effectiveness of organizations as instruments toward personal and social goals.

Those who criticize modem organizations as authoritarian and creativity- suppressing seem to proceed from two premises:

  1. That the exercise of authority in organizations is directly inimical to self-actualization.
  2. That the workplace is the principal arena for self-actualization and for realizing central life satisfactions.

As we have seen, this second premise may represent a misconception of the role that organizations play in most people’s lives, and that people want them to play. Some people—some managers, some professional people, some craftsmen—may find their major satisfactions in their work and during their working hours. They must be careful not to ascribe the same value system to all the other members of their society, or to assume it would be better if all who did not have these values would acquire them.

Most people appear to see organizations primarily or even exclusively as instrumental systems—systems that produce society’s goods and services, and that provide their employees with the wherewithal to lead pleasant and satisfying lives, primarily during the leisure time that is left them. From the accounts we reviewed in the commentary to Chapter VI, this is probably the role that organizations and work have always played in the lives of people, pre-industrial as well as industrial.

These remarks should not be interpreted as a claim that contemporary organizations represent the best of all possible worlds. There are many ways they can be improved, and a continued application of automation in order to reduce the need for those occupations that seem most routine and “alienating” is just one of those ways. But while we are improving our organizations, it is important that we enhance their abilities to do their main job, which is to serve as social instruments: to get work done, and thereby to increase the goods, services, and leisure that they make available to their members and to all members of society. The employment relation and the authority associated with it have been essential means for using organizations to perform these tasks.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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