The Role of Authority: Unity of command

In Chapter II some remarks were made on the inadequacy of the doctrine of unity of command, as that doctrine is usually stated. It was pointed out there that, in a trivial sense, unity of command is always achieved, for if a subordinate is instructed to base a decision on two confl icting premises he will obviously be able to accept only one of them, and has to disregard the other. Hence, when unity of command is urged, this cannot be all that is meant.

As was also explained in Chapter II, unity of command is usually taken to mean that any one individual in an administrative organization will accept the authority of only one other person in the organization. The validity of this principle as a part of sound organization procedure was criticized on the ground that it does not give any reason why an individual cannot accept certain decisional premises from one superior and other non-conflicting premises from another. He may, for example, accept the authority of a “line” superior in determining the program of his unit, while he accepts the authority of the accounting department as to what financial records he shall keep. Or, to use the example of Taylor’s “functional foremanship,” he may accept the instmctions of one foreman as to the speed of his lathe, and those of another foreman as to its proper maintenance.

Perhaps the purpose that is to be served by establishing unity of com- mand will be better understood if the results which such unity is sup-

relating to the same decisional premise should be either punished for not carrying out both commands, or placed in a position where he may carry out either command that he prefers. In the first case the subordinate will be demoralized by the impossible situation in which he is placed; in the second case he will retain his original discretion, hence will not be subject to any real authority. Moreover the superior, unless he can hold the subordinate responsible for carrying out instructions, cannot himself be held responsible for results. There is no question that these difficulties are real and fundamental; the only issue is whether unity of command is the sole or best solution.

On the contrary, there would seem to be at least four methods in common use for preventing or resolving conflicts in authority:

  • Unity of command in the traditional sense—each individual receives orders from one and only one superior.
  • Unity of command in the narrower sense defined in Chapter II—an individual may receive orders from several superiors, but in case of a conflict there is one and only one whom he is supposed to obey.
  • Division of authority—each unit in the organization is assigned some specific area over which it has exclusive authority, and the decisional premises of any individual that fall within this area are subject to that authority.
  • A system of rank—an individual is subject to the authority of all other individuals of a certain rank. If he receives conflicting orders, he follows the last one received, but is bound to bring the conflict to the attention of the person issuing the order. Authority relations between commissioned officers and men in the Army and Navy follow this general procedure.

These procedures, particularly the second, third, and fourth, are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and may be used in combination in a single organization.

1. The Hierarchy of Authority

The arrangement of the organization members in a hierarchy or pyramid of command affords the basis for either the first or the second method of avoiding conflicts in authority. Consistent adherence to such an arrangement either prevents the issuance of conflicting commands to a subordinate by different supervisors, or, if two individuals on the same level of

superior in the hierarchy. The administrative hierarchy, therefore, provides a determinate procedure that decides who is to decide.

In actual practice, the hierarchy of authority usually represents a compromise between the two theories of unity of command listed above; that is, the lines of authority in the hierarchy provide the normal (but almost never the exclusive) channels for the transmission of commands and orders, and when overlapping of orders does occur the hierarchy is referred to in resolving the conflict.

2. Division of Authority

The hierarchy of authority might be described as a division of authority according to persons—each individual is assigned authority (exclusive authority, if the first theory is followed) over a specified group of subordi- nates. It is equally possible to divide authority according to subject matter— each individual is assigned authority over some specified aspect of the organization’s work. In the literature this is often termed a “functional” allocation of authority.

Authority over subject matter is allocated by the issuance of authoritative communications—instructions, duties manuals, and the like— delineating the area within which each member of the group is to confine his activities, and within which the decisions of each member are to have an authoritative character in the group. Instead of deciding, in each particular case of conflict, what decisions are to be obeyed and what decisions are not, a general rule is laid down beforehand, granting each member of the group a certain sphere of decision within which he is to have authority.

If the work of members of the group were carried on in mutual isolation, there would be no need of a division of authority, beyond the establishment of the hierarchy. Normally, however, the manner in which each member of the group performs his work closely affects the work of each other member. The slowdown of one man on the assembly line may disrupt the entire line. The delay of a purchasing agent may affect a construction gang. A backlog on a reviewing officer’s desk may hold up correspondence.

Even where there is a hierarchy of authority, then, it is usually necessary to divide the organization also along functional, or subject-matter, lines. There are two criteria for measuring the success of an allocation of authority: (1) the extent to which it aids or hinders the work of the group, and (2) the extent to which it minimizes jurisdictional disputes.

Even under the best conditions, cases will occur where jurisdiction is doubtful. This is especially probable where two portions of the organization are organized on diverse principles: line and auxiliary, functional and geographical. In such cases, the need reappears for an appellate process to settle the dispute. The hierarchy of authority may be used for this purpose, or special appellate agencies may be used.

Where a formal division of authority on a subject-matter basis exists, however, a dispute is settled on a somewhat different basis from that in a simple hierarchy, where it is referred to a common superior—even though the process may be the same. When there is no division of authority, each separate dispute is submitted to the superior and is decided by him on its merits. Where there is a division of authority, the issue to be decided is not the specific question in dispute so much as the question of jurisdiction.

In the latter process, which we may call “adjudication,” the superior must concern himself not so much with the content of the decision or its expediency, as with its “legality”—that is, the competence of the decider, in terms of the formal organizational structure. Without this division of authority, the superior would be concerned principally with the merits of the specific case.

For example, there may be a disagreement between a purchasing agent and a line officer as to the specifications for stationery. The line officer may wish one brand and quality, the purchasing agent may insist on delivering another to him. If this were merely a question of a hierarchy of authority, the common superior to these two men would be faced with the question of which type of paper was more desirable for the contemplated use.

In an organization with formal allocations of authority, the question would not be submitted to the superior in this form. Instead, each subordinate would claim that decisions specifying the quality of paper lay within his sphere of authority. Instead of deciding which paper was best, the superior would be forced to decide which officer should decide which paper was best. Instead of a question of technology, he would be faced with a question of administration.

In practice, of course, the issue is seldom decided on such a clearcut basis. The administrative superior will generally inquire both into ques-

when the allocation of authority is clear. On the other hand, in order to maintain the lines of authority and the division of work in his organization, he must often support a particular decision because it lay within the sphere of authority of the decider rather than because it was the correct decision.

Even with these qualifications the illustration just given is a grave oversimplification of the actual problem, for it gives consideration only to the maintenance of the authority relation. In practice, when a conflict of authority is appealed to an administrator he must take into consideration (1) the effect his decision will have on the lines of authority, (2) the effect it will have upon organization policy, and (3) the information the conflict gives him with respect to the soundness and competence of his subordinates. The first point has already been discussed.

With respect to the second point, it is probably true that the admin- istrator will be inclined to look into the merits of the dispute rather than to decide it on jurisdictional grounds, if it is an important question of organizational policy. As a matter of fact, jurisdictional disputes are an important means of bringing to the top administrator significant issues of policy, and of preventing these from being decided at lower levels without his knowledge. Similarly (this bears on the third point), they are a means of informing him about the characteristics and viewpoints of his subordinates. Particularly when policy in the organization is in its formative stages, there may be important advantages, therefore, to the top administrator in a somewhat indefinite allocation of authority that would permit such disputes to arise. Certainly the technique of “playing one against the other” is used by top administrators so often that it cannot be casually dismissed as poor administration.

If the administrator uses this technique of maintaining control over the decisions of his subordinates, he is faced with the very delicate tasks of preventing organizational and jurisdictional lines from dissolving completely, and of preventing the differences among subordinates which he adjudicates from degenerating into personal quarrels or feuds among subunits of the organization for power and influence. Regardless of these dangers, to avoid the use of such methods may lead to virtual abdication.

3. Rank

Rank, as a basis for authority relations, is always employed in connection with a hierarchy of authority. In military organizations, and some others, it is absolutely necessary to provide a continuity of authority, and a cer-

ily disrupts the normal organizational pattern, rank is used to reestablish a system of authority.

This device, too, creates administrative complexities. An enlisted man, on a mission for one office, may be given conflicting instructions by another officer. The only safeguard here is the restraint of each officer, and his knowledge that he will be held to an accounting for a disruption of the administrative organization through the abuse of his authority.

4. The Application of Sanctions

It may be well to repeat at this point that authority, as the term is used in this volume, refers to the acceptance by the subordinate of the decisions of the superior and not the power of the superior to apply sanctions in case of noncompliance. In most present-day organizations an employee’s immediate superior does not possess the unregulated power of hiring and firing, although, regardless of whether there is a formal service rating scheme, that superior’s estimate of him will probably be a major factor in determining his chances of promotions, pay increases, and the like.

As the power of the immediate superior to impose sanctions is cir- cumscribed, he must rely more and more on other more positive incentives to enforce his authority. On the other hand those who have the power to apply sanctions will, by their use of this power, either reinforce or weaken the lines of authority that have been established. Inability to discipline, either directly or by appeal to his superiors, a subordinate who is disloyal will rapidly destroy the authority of any individual in the administrative hierarchy.

Hence, when the power to discipline rests with the immediate superior, the system of authority in the organization will generally take on and retain rather definite hierarchical structure. Each individual will know who the “boss” is. It may be conjectured that under these conditions those individuals who, according to the plan of organization, exercise zoned “functional” authority without disciplinary powers will take on more nearly an advisory than an authoritative role.

It will be noticed that, regardless of whether the power to apply sanc- tions is distributed throughout the administrative hierarchy or is concen- trated in the higher levels of that hierarchy, “unity of command” will generally be observed to the extent that a given individual will not be subjected to sanctions from two independent sources. This is a distinct, and narrower, concept of unity of command than the two stated previously, for it refers not to the right to issue orders, but to the power to

5. Concluding Comments

This volume is primarily a work of description rather than prescription. No attempt will be made to state definite principles as to the proper use of these several devices for the allocation of authority, but some tentative comments may be offered. Virtually no organization attempts to get along without some sort of hierarchy of authority. Some organizations operate on the theory that this hierarchy defines the sole channels of authority, others on the theory that the hierarchy is to be reverted to only in case of conflicts of authority. Whatever the theory, the practice almost always represents some compromise between these two.

In almost all organizations, authority is also zoned by subject matter; and the subject-matter allocation will sometimes conflict with the hierarchical allocation. In these cases the hierarchy is used as a mechanism for resolving jurisdictional disputes. These disputes afford the top administrator an important source of information as to what is going on at lower levels, and he will not be inclined to try to eliminate them entirely, even if he could, by a watertight allocation of authority. The distribution of the power to apply sanctions, and the use of this power, will have a considerable influence on the sharpness of the lines of authority and on the relative importance of hierarchical and subject-matter authority.

In some organizations the hierarchy and the zoning of authority will need to be supplemented by a system of rank to prevent breaks in the continuity of command.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *