Giving Authority

By Chris Chittenden

In our last article on relating, we touched on the role of authority. This month, we look at what has us give ourselves or others authority.

From our last article, you will recall that we spoke about authority and its fundamental role in our relationships. We claimed authority is a declaration we make in response to others’ declarations that validates those declarations for us. Given that we are constantly giving or not giving ourselves and others authority as we listen to declarations, it is vital we understand what has us give authority if we want to understand our relating better.

To do this, we can look at this in two ways – from the perspective of a society and from that of an individual. “Collective authority” is that given to a person who fulfills a certain role within a social structure. For example, when someone becomes a judge, they take on the authority of being a judge and can make declarations in a legal sense. However when a judge retires, they lose the collective authority associated with the role. Collective authority shows up throughout all of our social structures. In an organisational setting, people are given certain authority when they take on certain roles. That authority means those employees can make declarations within and for the organisation in line with their collective authority and those declarations will be valid for the organisation.

The second type of authority we term “personal authority”. Personal authority is the authority we individually give in response to any declaration we might hear. This type of authority is informed by collective authority but is not necessarily consistent with it. In other words, as individuals we do not always give our personal authority to someone who might have collective authority.

Let us look at this from an organisational perspective. My boss has collective authority given by the organisation to make certain declarations. Say she decides we have certain work priorities and we will focus on X rather than Y. On the other hand, I believe that Y is far more important than X. Hence even though I know that she has the collective authority to decide what I will do, I am torn about giving her my personal authority for this declaration. I may well ultimately give the authority to her and do what she has decided, however the validity of the decision will most likely still remain in question for me. In other words, I will most likely not be as committed to doing the work.

Similar scenarios are repeated every day as people deal with differences in perceptions of our own and others’ authority. When we coach people, one of the questions we often ask relates to the matching or mismatching of authority. Who is giving authority to whom in this situation and how does this then impact that situation? It can be a valuable question to ask yourself when things are not working as you would like.

This begs the question, what has us give personal authority when we make a declaration or listen to one. This can be seen in two key factors – power and trust. In our next newsletter, we will look at power and how that applies to authority and our relationships.

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© 2006 Chris Chittenden