The Role of Authority: Attraction to power

We do need to discuss briefly, however, the attraction that the prospect of holding power exerts on some people, both employees and their employers. Power, and formal authority as a form of power, is a frequently useful tool for attaining one’s objectives. But it is not uncommon for power to become a goal in its own right, sought for its own sake. There are large interpersonal differences among people in the needs they feel for power, relative to their needs for affiliation with others or for achievement.29 A balanced account of human motivation in organizations has to provide a significant role for all of these needs, and others, in shaping the feelings, thoughts, and actions of participants.

The need for power can be felt and expressed both by those who exercise it and by those over whom it is exercised. We call a manager authoritarian if he or she has a paramount need for power and little need for achievement or affiliation. But the alienated worker may be the very same person in the reciprocal role: this time urged by a need for power to rebel against attempts to control or influence his or her behavior.

In a world oriented toward power, “who controls” becomes the central issue that overshadows “what is accomplished.” It is in precisely such a power-focused world that it becomes most difficult to establish openness and trust among participants and self-actualization becomes synonymous with anarchy. Among the most unpleasant consequences of the expression of power needs is a dramatic upsurge of mistrust, anger, and fear between the contending groups.

Notice that this witch’s brew of dysfunctional consequences cannot be concocted from power alone. It arises out of interaction between a system of interdependencies on the one hand, and a high need for power among the participants (managers and managed alike) on the other. A classical issue in the design of organizations and societies is to determine how these dysfunctional consequences can be avoided or mitigated while permitting the accomplishment of the organization’s tasks (i.e., meeting needs for achievement and affiliation). The so-called “human relations school” of research on organizations has tended to choose de-emphasis of authority relations as the way out, but sometimes at the price of downplaying the consequences for organizational effectiveness.

Another way out, of course, is to find means for shifting human attention from needs for power to needs for achievement and affiliation. Lord Acton observed that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A new Lord Acton might say: “What conupts is not power, but the need for power; and it corrupts both the powerful and the powerless.” Readers who can recall the student unrest of the 1960s and ’70s will remember the students’ remarkable preoccupation with student power and with freedom from adult power, and their incoherence about the goals that the newly won power was to serve.

These phenomena are quite familiar to theorists of revolution. Desta- bilization of a social system, for whatever reason, creates needs for power within each of the self-identified social groups that now find the relations between “we” and “they” full of uncertainty and threat. It is in this context, too, that we must interpret the self-destructive behavior of both employees and employers that often emerges during industrial strikes.

It is an essential managerial task to create an environment in the organization in which authority can be used effectively as a tool for accomplishing the organization’s objectives rather than as an end in itself, without stimulating the latent urges of either managers or employees to use power for power’s sake.

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

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