Definition of authority

Even the very simple illustrations that have been presented of organized behavior exhibit, in embryo at least, the phenomenon of authority. Authority” may be defined as the power to make decisions which guide the actions of another. It is a relationship between two individuals, one superior, the other “subordinate.” The superior frames and transmits decisions with the expectation that they will be accepted by the subordinate. The subordinate expects such decisions, and his conduct is determined by them.57

The relationship of authority can be defined, therefore, in purely objective and behavioristic terms. It involves behaviors on the part of both superior and subordinate. When, and only when, these behaviors occur does a relation of authority exist between the two persons involved. When the behaviors do not occur there is no authority, whatever may be the paper” theory of organization.

The behavior pattern of the superior involves a command—an imperative statement concerning the choice of a behavior alternative by the other—and an expectation that the command will be accepted by the other as a criterion of choice.58

The behavior pattern of the subordinate is governed by a single inde- terminate decision, or criterion for decision, to “follow that behavior alternative which is selected for me by the superior.” That is, he holds in abeyance his own critical faculties for choosing between alternatives and uses the formal criterion of the receipt of a command or signal as his basis for choice.59

Now since the relation of authority involves a particular criterion of choice as the basis for the subordinate’s behavior, it is clear that two persons may stand in a relation of authority at one moment and not at the next. For the subordinate’s behavior may be governed at the first moment by a command, and not at the next. Nor does it follow that when two persons recognize each other as “superior” and “subordinate” respectively, all the verbalizations of the first which affect the behaviors of the second are “commands.” The willingness of the subordinate to accept a command, if given, does not imply that all, or even most, of his behavior choices are governed by commands.

It is necessary to distinguish, therefore, between specific behaviors which are momentary instances of the exercise of authority, and the roles played by two persons over a period of time which involve an expectation of obedience by the one and a willingness to obey by the other.

1. Distinction Between Influence and Authority

The relation of authority by no means comprehends all situations where the verbalizations of one person influence the behavior of another. The verbs “persuade,” “suggest,” etc., describe several kinds of influence which do not necessarily involve any relationship of authority. The characteristic which distinguishes authority from other kinds of influence is one already mentioned above, namely, that a subordinate holds in abeyance his own critical faculties for choosing between alternatives and uses the formal criterion of the receipt of a command or signal as his basis for choice. On the other hand, a person who receives a suggestion accepts it as only one of the evidential bases for making his choice—but the choice he will make depends upon conviction. Persuasion, too, centers around the reasons for or against a course of action. Persuasion and suggestion result in a change in the evidential environment of choice which may, but need not, lead to conviction. Obedience, on the other hand, is an abdication of choice.

Confusion among these terms results from the fact that all three phe- nomena—persuasion, suggestion, and command—are frequently present in a single situation. Even where a behavior can be secured by the exercise of authority, a superior often and perhaps usually prefers to employ suggestion or persuasion. Some reasons for this will be discussed presently. But confusion will be avoided if it is remembered_as has been pointed out already—that the mere fact that two persons accept the roles of superior and subordinate does not imply that all, or even most, of their behaviors will be instances of the exercise of authority.

The line of demarcation between suggestion and command is perhaps not so clear as would be suggested by this discussion, however. Certain subtleties are concealed in the term “conviction, which was used as the distinguishing criterion.

But we are convinced of a great number of things which never have been proved to us logically or empirically. Most persons in this country would agree that the atom bomb has been invented, though they would be hard put to demonstrate this either by pure logic or by the evidence of the senses. Likewise, few persons before taking prescribed medicines ask their physicians for a demonstration of the curative properties of the prescription.

In other words, conviction often results from the social transmission of factual statements, even in the absence of proof. So, a secretary who has been instructed by her employer to investigate a particular question of office procedure may report: “I have looked into the problem, and suggest that you act in this manner.” This suggestion may be accepted without any review of its evidential basis by the employer, merely on the strength of his confidence in the secretary. Here is evident the same relaxation of critical faculties that we have said was characteristic of the relation of authority.

Statements, then, may convince without proving by virtue of the status or position of the person making the statement. An individual who does not have a recognized status, or who is not recognized by his associates as expert with respect to a certain kind of knowledge, will have a more difficult time convincing his listeners that a recommendation is sound than one who possesses the credentials of “expertness.” Recommendations are judged partly on their merits, but partly on the merits of the persons making the recommendations. This is true both because the individuals acting upon the recommendations often do not have the expertise needed to judge them, and because pressure of time requires them to accept the recommendations of those whom they trust. This is an important reason for the resistance that is usually experienced in any organization to suggestions that are made outside the line of duty, or that are volunteered through other than the usual lines of communication.

It should not be implied that this resistance to “irregular” suggestions is entirely a weakness of organization. The specialization of decisionmaking functions, and the fixing of responsibility for particular kinds of expertness upon particular individuals is an important source of organizational efficiency that must be balanced against the potential loss of independent ideas which results.

At the expense of a possible abuse of the term, we shall use “authority” broadly, and comprehend under it all situations where suggestions are accepted without any critical review or consideration. If this definition is accepted, it follows that when A is superior to B at one moment,

2. Authority and the “Last Word”

In the situations that have been discussed, a subordinate accepts commands in the absence of a determinate choice of his own. But a subordinate may also accept commands in opposition to a determinate choice of his own. In such a case, the element of authority in the behavior pattern is unequivocal. When there is a disagreement between two persons, and when the disagreement is not resolved by discussion, persuasion, or other means of conviction, then it must be decided by the authority of one or the other participant. It is this “right to the last word” which is usually meant in speaking of “lines of authority” in an administrative organization. Too often, however, the element of disagreement in obedience is overemphasized at the expense of the other elements of the situation. The term “authority” would be too narrowly employed if it were restricted to such instances of disagreement.

A final complication must be added to the notion of authority. If authority were evidenced entirely in the acceptance of explicit commands, or in the resolution of disagreements, its presence or absence in any relationship could be sought in the presence or absence of these tangible concomitants. But it is equally possible for obedience to anticipate commands. The subordinate may, and is expected to, ask himself “How would my superior wish me to behave under these circumstances?” Under such circumstances, authority is implemented by a subsequent review of completed actions, rather than a prior command. Further, the more obedient the subordinate, the less tangible will be the evidences of authority. For authority will need to be exercised only to reverse an incorrect decision.

This phenomenon has been pointed out by Friedrich,60 who calls it a “rule of anticipated reactions.” It affords a striking example of the manner in which expectations and anticipations govern human behavior, and the difficulties which result from this for the analysis of human institutions. The difficulty in determining authority relations because of the operation of the mle of anticipated reactions is common to all “power” situations. Any study, for instance, of a governor’s veto power must take into consideration what bills failed of passage in the legislature because of the anticipation of veto, and what bills were passed for the very same reason.61

Any study of power relations which confines itself to instances where the sanctions of power were invoked misses the essential fact of the situa-tion. To avoid this fallacy, authority has been defined in this study not in terms of the sanctions of the superior, but in terms of the behaviors of the subordinate.

3. The Sanctions of Authority

Having decided, tentatively at least, what authority is, we must examine the circumstances sunounding its exercise. Why and to what extent will a subordinate accept the decisions of another as governing his own conduct?

The superior-subordinate relationship is one of many possible examples of the role-taking which characterizes broad areas of human conduct. Perhaps the most important basis for such role-taking is custom. That is, a great deal of conduct requires no further explanation than that, under the circumstances, it is the socially “expected” conduct. For the reasons why particular conduct is dictated by custom it would be necessary to study the social history of the society in question.7

The “institutions” of a society may be regarded as rules specifying the roles that particular persons will assume in relation to one another under certain circumstances. The range of possible roles and possible behaviors is as broad as the ingenuity of man for dramatic invention.8

One of the socially determined roles in many societies is that of “employee.” The particular content of the role—the degree of obedience expected—will vary with the social situation. The American working man today, for example, probably has a somewhat narrower zone of acceptance, so far as the employer’s instructions are concerned, than his father had. In part this may be due to his stronger bargaining position, or conversely, the weaker sanctions of the employer; but there is probably also present here a more fundamental change in social attitudes as to what it is “proper” for an employer to ask an employee to do. This changed attitude is reflected also in social legislation limiting the terms of the employment contract.

There are wide differences, too, among different types of employees in their expectations of the authority relations in their positions. Professional men and skilled workmen are apt to have relatively narrow zones of acceptance, particularly in the areas of their own professional competences or skills.

No attempt will be made here to explain the genesis of these social attitudes that establish an expectation of obedience in certain situations, nor their dependence upon and relation to other attitude clusters in the society. There has been much speculation that the central attitudes of a society must be reflected in administrative organization, so that administration in a democracy will be in some sense “democratic” while administration in a totalitarian system will be “authoritarian.” Thus far, the thesis has been expounded, but by no means demonstrated.

There are a number of other, more specific, factors which induce acceptance of authority in organization. In a broad sense they might be called “sanctions,” although that word is usually confined to the stimuli which act through punishment, while some of the factors listed below are more properly classified as rewards.

  • The social sanctions are the first to be noted, and perhaps the most Not only does society set up in the individual expectations of obedience in certain social situations, but the individual who fails to accept his role will feel, in one way or another, the social disapprobation of his fellows. Insubordination can be as embarrassing, under these circumstances, as failure to wear a necktie to church.

On the other hand, in so far as fellow employees may receive vicarious satisfaction when an individual “tells off” the boss, social sanctions may operate to decrease the effectiveness of authority. The extent to which group attitudes of acceptance or resistance will condition the individual’s reactions to authority has been much emphasized in the Hawthorne studies.9

  • Psychological differences between individuals may play an important part in enforcing such relations. Though the study of leadership is in a very primitive stage, there are some indications that there may be certain personality types that lead, and others that follow.10
  • Purpose has been stressed by students of administration as a sanction of prime As already pointed out in Chapter VI, in voluntary organizations efforts are contributed largely because the contributor is sympathetic to the purpose of the organization. He is willing to obey commands because he realizes that the coordination secured thereby is useful to the attainment of the joint purpose.11

Several conditions must be satisfied if purpose is to be an effective sanction of authority. The subordinate must have confidence that the command is issued in furtherance of a purpose with which he is in sympathy. Second, he must have confidence that the command will be effective in achieving this purpose. This confidence may be based less on his own knowledge of the correctness of the command (as a matter of fact, such acceptance would fall outside our definition of authority) than on his faith in the ability of those who issued the command, his recognition that they have information he does not have, and his realization that his efforts and those of fellow workers will be ineffective in reaching the desired objective without some coordination from above. Within limits, he will even accept commands he knows to be inconect because he does not wish to challenge or unsettle a system of authority that he believes to be beneficial to his aims in the long run.

  • More formal sanctions in our society are based on the relation between the “job” and economic security and status. Thus, obedience may be the price of retaining the position, securing a higher salary, or other The facts that most organizations will tolerate large quantities of insubordination—particularly if it is not verbalized—without dismissal, and that many organization members are not desirous of promotion, diminish the importance of these sanctions as means for securing acceptance of authority in the day-by-day work of an organization.
  • Particularly in the case of individuals not much affected by influences in the third and fourth categories, simple unwillingness or dis- inclination to accept responsibility may be a major reason for the acceptance of decisions made by others. If the assigned task is not unduly unpleasant, many individuals would prefer being told what to do to being forced to make the decisions themselves. As a matter of f act, this is probably characteristic of most individuals when the decision in question lies outside the area of their experience and competence. The psychological roots of this lie deeper than a mere fear of the consequences which may be forthcoming in case of an incorrect decision, and there is great variability among individuals in this characteristic.

4. The Limits of Authority

The most striking characteristic of the “subordinate” role is that it establishes an area of acceptance12 in behavior within which the subordinate is willing to accept the decisions made for him by his superior. His choice is then determined, always within the area of acceptance, by his superior, and the relation of superior-subordinate holds only within this area. Acceptance may be due to any of the influences discussed in the previous section, and may take place when the subordinate does not care which alternative is selected, or when the sanctions are sufficiently strong to induce him to carry out an undesired alternative.

The magnitude of the area is influenced by a large number of circum- stances. A voluntary organization with poorly defined objectives has perhaps the narrowest range of acceptance.62 An army, where the sanctions as well as the customs are of extreme severity, has the broadest area of acceptance.63

Restraint of the superior is as important as obedience of the subordinate in maintaining the relationship. Modem writers on administration have emphasized the need for restraint by recommending the use when possible of other means of influence, leading to conviction, rather than authority, leading often to nothing more than acquiescence.

The corresponding limitations of political authority have been discussed by Professor Charles E. Merriam.15 Theoreticians of history have often ques- tioned the extent to which “leaders” really lead. How broad is the area of indifference within which a group will continue to follow its leadership? In a very real sense, the leader, or the superior, is merely a bus driver whose pas- sengers will leave him unless he takes them in the direction they wish to go. They leave him only minor discretion as to the road to be followed.

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

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