Contemporary view of authority and responsibility

The early management writers were enamored of authority. They assumed that the rights inherent in one’s formal position in an organization were the sole source of influence. They believed that managers were all powerful. These assumptions might have been true 30 or 60 years ago. Organizations were simpler. Staff was less important. Managers were only minimally dependent on technical specialists. Under such conditions, influence is the same as authority. And the higher a manager’s position in the organization, the more influence he or she had. However, those conditions no longer hold. Researchers and practitioners of management now recognize that you do not have to be a manager to have power and that power is not perfectly correlated with one’s level in the organization.

Authority is an important concept in organization, but an exclusive focus on authority produces a narrow, unrealistic view of influence. Today, we recognize that authority is by element in the large concept of power.

How do authority and power differ?

The terms authority and power are frequently confused. Authority is a right, the legitimacy of which is based on the authority figure position in the organization.

Power: An individual’s capacity to influence decisions. Authority is part of the larger concept of power. That is, the formal rights that come with an individual’s position in the organization are just on means by which an individual can affect the decision process.

Exhibit visually depicts the differences between authority and power. The two dimensional arrangement of boxes in part A portrays authority. The area in which the authority applies is defined by the horizontal dimension. Each horizontal grouping represents functional area. The influence one holds in the organization is defined by the vertical; dimension in the structure. The higher one is in the organization the greater one’s authority.

Power on the other hand, is a three dimensional concept. It includes not only the functional and hierarchical dimensions but also a third dimension called centrality. Although authority is defined by one’s vertical position in the hierarchy, power is made up of both one’s vertical position and one’s distance from the organization’s power core or center.

Types of power:

1) Coercive power: Power based on fear
2) Reward Power: Power based on the ability to distribute something that others value.
3) Legitimate power: power based on one’s position in the formal hierarchy.
4) Expert power: power based on one’s expertise, special skill, or knowledge.
5) Referent power: Power based on identification with a person who has desirable resources or personal traits.

The cone analogy explicitly acknowledges two facts: (1) The higher one moves in an organization (an increase in authority) the closer one moves to the power core; and (2) it is not necessary to have authority in order to wield power because one can move horizontally inward toward the power core without moving up. For instance, have you ever noticed that administrative assistants are powerful in a company even though they have little authority? Often, as gatekeepers for their bosses, these assistants have considerable influence over whom their bosses see and when they see them. Furthermore, because they are regularly relied upon to pass information on to their bosses, they have some control over what their not to upset the boss’s Rs 8 lakhs year administrative assistant. Why? because the assistant has power. This individual may be low in the authority hierarchy but close to the power core.

Low ranking employees who have relatives, friends or associates in high places might also be close to the power core. So, too are employees with scarce and important skills. The lowly production engineer with 20 years of experience in a company might be the only one in the firm who knows the inner workings of all the old production machinery. When pieces of this old equipment break down, only this engineer understands how to fix them. Suddenly, the engineer’s influence is much greater than it would appear from his or her level in the vertical hierarchy. What do these examples tell us about power? They indicate that power can come from different areas. John French and Bertram Raven identified five sources, or bases of power: coercive, reward, legitimate, expert, and referent.

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