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by James Waldroop Ph.D.
and Timothy Butler Ph.D.

Directors of MBA Career Development at the Harvard Business School. Twenty years relevant experience. Business Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Executive Coaches to many Fortune 500 companies, helping individuals work to their highest level of potential.


Coming to Terms with Authority

Your 2nd Essential Career Development Step



Authority is the right, or permission, to act. Authority is not power which is the capacity to act. No one can grant you power, but authority, by its nature, must be granted. Authority is the permission to exercise your own power - your potential to exercise your knowledge and experience to make effective business decisions, to express your self, to act in the world, to be an acknowledged and respected person. When you are denied the authority to act you may feel that your sense of self is diminished, you may feel 'smaller,' isolated, alienated - that you lack status - that you are not 'the man.'

This is the origin of the problems with authority that torment many businesses and organizations.


Distinguish clearly between your power and your authority - between what you can do and what you may do. Everyone (except, in some situations, the majority shareholder) has a boss. Less authority does not mean a loss of your personal power - it does not diminish your own capacity or reality. This realization, and your acceptance of it - your acknowledgement of its validity, is the key to problems with authority.

We call this psytech tool 'The Status Resolver.'

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, says that our ambivalence toward authority carries over from our childhood and adolescence, from our wish then to be dependent on our parents while simultaneously wanting to establish our own authority. The outcome affects our individual temperaments and personalities.

Whether or not we agree with Freud's analysis, we do enter the world of work with definite attitudes toward authority. These attitudes - our stances towards authority - interact there with the personalities and styles of our individual bosses. With varying outcomes.

Waldroop and Butler identify three general stances toward authority; engaged, reactive, laissez-faire. Use these to recognize your own underlying attitudes and patterns of behavior, which you tend to repeat - and change them if you need to.

None of these three stances is inherently better than the other two. Each stance can be productive or dysfunctional depending on an individual's level of development, the personality of the authority figure and the environment - the 'culture' - of the organization.

  1. ENGAGED STANCE. You like formal structures of power and authority. You welcome the vision and direction provided by a strong leader and you look for ways to spend time with that person. You see power flowing through a hierarchy of managers as the most effective route to accomplishment and success.
    When Productive: You bring a high level of commitment to the goals of the business unit.
    When Dysfunctional: You become one of those who is 'Doing too Much, Pushing too Hard,' 'Always Swinging for the Fence,' 'Running Roughshod over the Opposition.' Or you can abdicate your personal power and project that onto your leader - becoming overly dependent and uncertain of your own ability and purpose.
  2. REACTIVE STANCE. You too are strongly oriented toward authority but as a dialectic between individuals who are equals. You use the art or practice of arriving at the truth by using conversation involving question and answer, or even by the Hegelian method of combining thesis and antithesis into a coherent synthesis.
    When Productive: Your reaction to directives brings intensity and focus to the issue of power. You can be a creative stimulus.
    When Dysfunctional: You can be an ornery, chronic challenge, 'The Rebel Looking for a Cause.'

    ENTREPRENEURS often adopt a reactive stance toward authority.
    When Productive: You're not attracted to having authority as much as you are to having autonomy: the freedom to pursue your own ideas and act on your own initiative without oversight. You are a pioneer more than a rebel.
    When Dysfunctional: Your reaction to authority is so strong that your only solution is to set up your own company - whether or not you feel prepared or genuinely interested in doing so. You are a pseudo-entrepreneur.

  3. LAISSEZ-FAIRE STANCE. ('Let do') You are indifferent toward formal authority. You have a strong sense of self, of competence, of the firm's vision. You see the leader as a coordinator of fellow professionals. You're willing to follow the manager's lead as long as you think it makes sense and doesn't impinge too much on your professional enthusiasm and mission.
    When Productive: Your stance can be the core of an egalitarian model of professionalism founded on mutual respect and rational compromise.
    When Dysfunctional: You can drift toward indifference to the overall direction of the organization and the need for unified action; 'Seeing the World in Black and White,' 'Emotionally Tone-Deaf,' 'Lacking a Sense of Boundaries.'

Know Your Own Default Stance. Your stance toward authority is dynamic, not static - although you do have a default stance. The dynamics of your relationships to authority are driven by your personality and behavior and those of your current manager. A skilled manager will engage commitment; an authoritarian manager can alienate. Review your interactions with previous managers. The stance you most often adopted is your default stance.

Now that you know your default stance toward authority you can more easily recognize where your dysfunctional behaviors occur and why. And you can change them.

Is your default stance an engaged stance but so dysfunctional that you never take personal initiative? Business professionals are paid to identify opportunities and take initiative on their own. Optimizing a business requires the best thinking from everybody. If you don't speak up in meetings you'll be seen as deficient.

Nor can you abrogate responsibility for your own career. Your next best career move may well be outside your current organization. You can't leave that decision to your boss. You must find the path that that brings you the most career satisfaction. You are responsible for your own career.

Is yours a reactive stance but so dysfunctional that you undermine your own credibility? If so, you are damaging your career and you need to find help.

Is your attitude laissez-faire but dysfunctional? You are indifferent to power? Power is a fact. It is social energy. It cannot be ignored. Power in an organization is concerned with setting direction and allocating resources accordingly. If you want the resources you need to do your work you have to participate in organizational decision-making and politics.

Solution: Know yourself - your default stance toward authority. If your stance is productive, you have no problem. If it's dysfunctional, you must change it to fix your problem.


Authority is a loaded psychological issue. Conflicts can be career-fatal. Career success demands that you be flexible and creative - yet constantly alert and self-protective - in your relationships with your superiors. When you have the insight to handle strong emotional reactions from many different personalities, then you will make your own decisions about how you engage with authority. Astutely, not stupidly.

When you can bring your unconscious habits into your conscious awareness, when you can understand your feelings about authority, when you know how those feelings contribute to your effectiveness and how they get in your way, then you know yourself much better. From then on, you, not your history, will dictate your future. You become a higher performance person.

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