Authority

My last post on advice for managers stirred up a great comment thread, so go read those comments first.

The main subject of contention was my third point where I said “There is no such thing as authority”. What was interesting was that every commenter had a different way of interpreting the word authority. Jessie pointed out one can be an expert authority in the field, and be consulted on that basis. Beemer and Jessie both shared experiences where they should have used their implied authority. Tstop mentioned the “big ugly stick” of authority whereby a manager can get their way because they’re the boss. So I’m posting again to explain what I actually meant, with asides to answer those comments.

Tstop encapsulated what I meant with the phrase “permission to manage” (since he’s the one that inspired the authority point, it’s not surprising he captured the meaning). As a new manager, you have to earn the “permission to manage” of both your team members and your bosses. A misconception I had early in my career was that one got that “permission to manage” by being granted it by one’s bosses. If I could persuade my bosses to appoint me as manager, then people would listen to me! It doesn’t work that way, though.

I was once appointed as the spokesperson to represent my team to the rest of the company. I went to the planning meeting, argued over the tasks that needed to be done until they were reasonable to my eyes, and then brought the task list back to the team. The grizzled veteran with 15 years of experience laughed me out of the room. I ended up giving up the spokesperson position to the veteran’s boss because I didn’t feel I had the “authority” to tell this guy what to do.

I now realize that you have to earn the “authority” or “permission to manage” of your coworkers. You have to start acting like a manager by:

  • Taking responsibility for the team.
  • Making sure things get done.
  • Making sure teammates get what they need.
  • Solving problems as they arise.
  • Displaying enough expertise that your judgment is trusted in solving those problems.

If you do those things, your team will start seeing you as the leader and the person to whom they look when they’re not sure what to do next. From there, the “granted authority” implied by the org chart will often follow. In one of those Zen paradoxes, by the time you are granted official “authority”, you don’t need it because you have already figured out how to persuade the team to follow you.

The other “authority” you have to earn is the “permission to manage” from your bosses. Even if you earn the trust and respect of your coworkers, you will not be made an official manager on the org chart unless your bosses believe in you. As I mentioned in that previous post, your team has to consistently deliver results for you to earn that trust. You always need to balance between what’s best for the team and what’s best for the company.

So my previous post’s advice might have been better phrased “There’s no such thing as granted authority”. If I’m sitting around waiting for the company to appoint me to a position of leadership, I’m going to be waiting for a very long time. I have to earn that authority myself. Even if they did grant me “authority”, I would not be able to wield it effectively because I would have no way of getting my team to do anything other than by relying on the “big ugly stick” of “Because I’m the boss!” (as Tstop pointed out, there are times when the stick needs to be wielded, but it should be the exception, not the rule).

Hopefully that makes it clearer what I meant by that third point, and answers the questions and objections of my commenters. I continue to be fascinated by how people get organized to do things, and the role that managers or leaders have to play in that organization, so I expect I’ll continue to think about this topic.

P.S. Street mining today was fun. A walk around SoHo with a bunch of interesting people, dropping into shops and galleries selected by Pam Grossman, followed up by a beer at Spring Lounge and dinner with a few folks.

P.P.S. Lots of posts in various states of conception. I get distracted from posting too easily. This week it was a company excursion to Curtains on Wednesday evening, drinks with Columbia classmates on Thursday evening, and reading Harry Potter 7 on Friday evening. I think I need to be more disciplined about finding a time of day to post and sticking to it, or finding some other “ritual of preparation”, as Twyla Tharp suggested in her book The Creative Habit.


A misconception I had early in my career: This misconception is not that surprising if you think about the types of environments in which we are raised. We have our parents, the ultimate in authority figures. We have teachers and coaches who tell us what to do. We are in environments where there is an explicit authority and we are punished for not obeying that authority.

How do we change the student who looks to authority for answers into the adult who generates their own answers? Graduate school is one way, as it is explicitly about turning the student into an authority in a given field, changing somebody who does the work of others into somebody who does their own work. In the ideal case, the advisor understands that role, and mentors the student through the process.

People in industry don’t have a guided process for that same transition, which I think causes inevitable disillusionment and cynicism. If we treat new employees as if they are still students and subject to unquestionable authority, then there will eventually be a time when their bosses don’t have the answers, and the illusion of authority is shattered. However, as Jessie and Beemer pointed out, they do need the structure of authority early in their careers because they have not yet learned to function without such structure. How to handle that transition should probably be another post when I figure out a good way to do it.

2 thoughts on “Authority

  1. Oh, good followup, but let me put my part a slightly different way. In my experience of teaching, the goal is to move from “I tell you X” to “I set you up to discover X for yourself” but when we’re talking about mandatory, non-leveled freshman comp, I think some presentation of authority will always be necessary. That doesn’t mean “I make my students do X”–it means “I promise my student that I have something good and that I’m going to give it to them.”

    My usual example is about dress codes. I hated dress codes in engineering because it was all about upper-level people making me conform, but when I’m teaching, I dress like a teacher so my students know I’m taking them seriously. If I show up dressed too casually, not like an authority figure, they look at me and think they know everything I know, and that means they’re not preparing to learn something new.

  2. Yeah, I didn’t figure out how to teach effectively in the couple terms I did it in grad school. I was great in one-on-one sessions with students, because then I could figure out where they were stuck and use the Socratic method to get them through the hump. I also didn’t have to set curriculum, and I don’t know how I would have done that.

    Dress codes are interesting – I don’t think I ever dressed up as a grad student. But that may be a difference in subject matter – in physics, the students _knew_ they didn’t know the subject matter, whereas they might think they know how to write.

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