Sometimes authority is based on expertise—we look to someone who “knows what they are doing.” While they might have been assigned formal authority, their words make a difference. They influence (and may ultimately control) by providing appropriate advice or insights about how to make something work, how to build something, how to provide the best possible services, or how to establish effective operational procedures.
There are other sources of authority that are somewhat less rationally based, but other more powerful than either positional or expert authority. There is relational authority. This member of our group is related to or a close friend of our “boss” – or this persona has the ear of someone at the top of the organization. In large, complex organizations, relationship authority can be very important.
This is how self-organizing processes often work: people relate to one another and influence one another through the formation of informal social networks—and at the hub of these networks is often someone who is also part of another social network that has considerable power in the organization. This is a variant on the “link-pin” model first introduced by Rensis Likert (1967). If one can serve as a link-pin between two levels of an organization, then they are likely to be granted informal, but powerful relational authority.
The other two major sources of authority are often hard to manage and can be quite destructive. First, there is authority that is based primarily in tradition. White males in America are readily assigned authority, as are older gentlemen in many Asian countries. For instance, as an older male with a white beard, one of us [WB] is assigned quite a bit of authority when working in Asia. Hopefully, there is some real expertise to be offered to the Asian clients—but it is clear that there is a boost in the assignment of traditional authority to the older American consultant with the white beard.
As we are all aware, major struggles are now going on in many contemporary societies regarding traditional authority. More positional and expert authority must be granted women, ethnic and racial minorities, those with disabilities, and those adopting nontraditional gender (and non-gender) identities and practices. It is precisely because critical social justice and equity issues are front-and-center in many societies that the issue of control and authority in many groups is contentious and its resolution is critical though difficult. When a group has had a long history of hegemony, a gesture of greater equality might not be trusted.Download Article 1K Club