Authority: A Forbidden or Powerful Tool?

By May 2, 2017 Alive From 9 to 5

Patrick is at the helm of a not-for-profit organization. Joanne is VP HR at a manufacturing plant, Susan is a sales director, and Derek is a VP of operations and although they have never met, they have a common challenge.

“What is your authority on the matter?” I ask.

“My what?” this reply makes me sense that I have taken him off guard.

“What is your authority to require that your employee stop this behaviour?  She has a job to do and it sounds like her actions are causing a lot of damage to the entire department.”

“I. Have. No. Idea.” The silence on the call tells of a cascade of clarity. “I really need to find out,” he said after a long pause.

The managers have three things in common. One, they strive to be high-level leaders who get results through motivating, inspiring and guiding their teams.  Two, they abhor the ‘Old School’ authoritarian who sends employees scurrying like frightened mice. And three, they were utterly exasperated by managing insubordinate employees.

Their shared aversion to calling rank made me wonder if modern leadership theory has caused the word “authority” to be a taboo.

Curious, I went on a quest to figure out the place for authority in a desirable workplace culture.

The online Oxford Dictionary defines authority as:

The power or right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience.

Give orders? Enforce obedience? Yuck.

A person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative sphere

Power and control? Pee-Eew!

Looking up famous management experts, I found more palatable answers:

Stephen Covey said

“Management is formal authority given from above. Leadership is moral authority given from below and all around.”

And Ken Blanchard

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

There it is! Influence in, authority OUT!

But how does this help a manager whose employees are insubordinate?

Digging deeper I started a conversation with an online forum of executive coaches:  “What is the coach approach to role authority and consequences?” I posed.

More than 20 peers contributed to the conversation. The wisdom of the group concurred that the coach approach empowers leaders sufficiently hence the use authority and consequences can be avoided.

Still, I didn’t feel that any of this helps a manager who has done his or her best to embrace the coach approach but yet, makes no progress with their troublesome direct reports.

Then I remembered what change management expert, Romy Schnaiberg said in her 2016 webinar on performance improvement:

“A business is not a democracy”

That statement is like dawn cracking on the horizon. The onus is on a manager to empower the employees to succeed, however, the employee does not get to vote on whether the job gets done nor overrule the workplace standards for quality and personal comportment. Managers need to know the scope of their authority and direct reports need to know what boundaries cannot be crossed.  Not so those at the helm can instill fear and panic into the hearts of their employees but so that all members respect guiding principles, standards, and codes of conduct that support safe, productive and harmonious workplaces.

Role authority must be present, like the big hammer that finds its way to the bottom of the tool box, tucked away at the back of the garage, buried, as its force is so rarely needed. Work cultures where the scope of role authority is clearly defined and properly handled are stronger because strong, clear boundaries secure consistent fairness.

My search did not provide the formula that I was looking for so I wrote:

The Coach Approach to Role Authority

  • Establish Focus:
    • Create and communicate vision, mission, and strategy
    • Clarify roles, goals, and responsibilities
    • Make decisions with integrity
  • Explore Possibilities
    • Select the right people to brainstorm and implement plans
    • Revive a team’s spirit by inspiring its members with a vision of a better future and their role in creating it
  • Set Goals and Plan Actions
    • Explain the ‘why’
    • Delegate and then help people manage their responsibilities
    • Consistently champion standards of excellence
  • Remove Barriers
    • Create winning conditions
    • Break a tie or a stalemate situation
    • Build on what is working
    • Invest in your employees to advance their knowledge and skills
    • Constantly share constructive and corrective feedback
    • Make the tough decisions and follow through
  • Review, Plan, Follow-up
    • Protect direct reports from being bullied and scapegoated
    • Check in on progress to ensure goals are being achieved
    • Manage performance through training, coaching, rewards, and consequences
    • Step out of the spotlight and share the credit
    • Praise publically to highlight the positive

How do you use your authority? Leave a comment, share your story.

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