Decoding Signals: The Authority Code

Decoding Signals: The Authority Code

Decoding Signals: The Authority Code 1222 829 Randolf Jessl

What is authority? How is authority identified, formed, and lost? These are questions we would like to answer with our study ‘Authority in Germany: Who follows whom?’. We have received quite a number of inquiries and comments and are going to answer these step by step. Today we focus upon where to find the authority code in our model.

This is a legitimate question as our model encompasses two levels.

Authority Code – A model for Communication and Leadership [Auctority 2018]

The first level is the code itself, i.e., a system of signs and signals that help people identify and assess authority. This system encompasses the four dimensions in the center of our model. They are based upon the insights from our study ‘Authority in Germany: Who follows whom?’. In an online survey, we asked one thousand people how they identify authority and why they attribute authority to a specific person.

The second level refers to the connotations associated with authority. These are the perceptions of the participants they provided when asked what authority means to them. According to the answers there are opposite perceptions. Part of the respondents thinks that authority entails aggressive, authoritarian behavior. When pondering about authority, they also think about force, violence, and arbitrariness.

The larger part, however, has more positive perceptions of authority, i.e. trust, security, and orientation. This is a concept of authority, that does not divide or force; it rather focuses upon connecting people and convincing followers.

Authority between agression and cohesion

In other words, instead of associating authority with aggression, they rather associate it with cohesion. We would like to paraphrase this way of thinking about authority with the attribute ‘authoritative’. This term is not really used in the German language, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon world its quite common to distinguish ‘authoritarian’ from ‘authoritative’ behavior. This differentiation provides the clarity German debates definitely lack.

We would like to change this as we have found out that authority in the context of authoritative behavior and cohesive intentions becomes more and more popular. As we have based our research upon a study from 2010 done by the Allensbach Institute on behalf of the Herbert-Quant-Foundation, we are able to draw a comparison. In 2018, even more people than in 2010 attribute an effect to authority that helps to connect, to obtain orientation, and to feel secure. There’s a good chance for authority to turn into a positively perceived concept when it comes to the question of who is capable of leading and deserves being followed.

Perception of Authority – 2010 vs. 2018Thus, the triangular parts of our model describe:

  • the experience of authority (i.e., the perception and ideas of those who observe authority with other people) and
  • the exertion of authority (i.e., the behavior, impression, and impact of people who are perceived as an authority by others).

They do not say anything though about what authority actually is or how it could be identified.

Two levels, four elements: The Authority Code

This becomes clear when looking at the circular elements in the center of our model. They describe the authority code and encompass a number of aspects we put into four clusters.

The perception of power, strength or (as we call it) potency of a person is most important and therefore forms the interior circle. It is the result of the interaction of the other three elements in the exterior circle.

Authority is and will be a form of superiority people attribute to others they perceive as persons with authority.

Respect and reputation of a person considered an authority are based upon potency.

Potency was the most robust attribute of authority in our study: No matter whether somebody adopts the authoritarian or rather the authoritative point of view, and no matter how diverse the participants may have been, most of the respondents associated ideas of potency with authority. That’s why we consider potency as the core of authority. Let’s call it leadership capability.

Signs and signals of authority and leadership capability

There was less consent among the participants though about the elements of the exterior circle. Here we clustered features of authority the respondents used in order to diagnose authority within others. We weighted them according to the frequency of their occurrence in the survey. These features form three clusters:

  • substance
  • habitus
  • status

Substance encompasses signs and signals that point to the knowledge, experience, skills, and ideas of a person considered an authority.

Habitus encompasses signs and signals of appearance, speech, and action that indicate the presence of authority.

Eventually, there are signs and signals that mark the outstanding status of a person. These can be, for instance, titles, awards, or certificates.

It’s important to note that people weight these attributes differently. There are people who consider status and habitus much more important when it comes to decide whether somebody is an authority or not. However, the average result of our survey paints a different or rather opposite picture. Substance was classified much more important than habitus and even more important than status.

What’s the benefit of knowing the authority code?

So, what are we supposed to do now? We are convinced that knowing the authority code is quite useful whenever we need to answer the question who should take the lead and who deserves being followed. More often than not this is no question but rather predestination and regulated by hierarchies, functions, roles, and responsibilities. However, people follow others with much more commitment and passion when deciding to do so actively and voluntarily.

There are at least two situations when it’s not predetermined whom to follow. Both of them become more and more important.

Situation number 1: Whenever people prefer to cooperate on a level playing field within informal groups. This is the case in any kind of project in business, society, or other domains. Here we also need people with authority who give directions to others. The group, however, decides according to the situation who will be capable of taking the lead. Experts call this ‘horizontal, fluent authority’ or ‘lateral, sidelong leadership’ (see bibliography). It is not a coincidence that Guenther Fuerstberger and Tanja Ineichen, who have written a substantial book about lateral leadership (see bibliography), developed a model for the evaluation of authority that’s quite similar to ours based upon our survey results.

Situation number 2: Whenever people seek advice and orientation from others whose expertise is not easily or clearly determined. This happens more and more in social media where people ‘follow’ others. Especially in fields of activity without third party certification and specific quality standards, authority is demonstrated by the interaction of substance, habitus, and status (whereas it’s much more difficult to identify the most important dimension ‘substance’ than detecting habitus and status). Not everyone with a high quantity of followers and an ‘influencer’ status is an authority when it comes to the questions s/he seeks to answer with and for a large audience. This has been the key message in the first part of our series.

Identifying and demonstrating authority

In a nutshell, there are four key aspects:

  1. Authority is a form of superiority people see in others. Whether it really exists, is in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Authority can be identified. With our code in mind, it’s much easier to distinguish attentively and critically between signs and signals of substance, habitus, and status.
  3. Authority is demonstrated and designed. People send signals of substance, habitus, and status that contribute to their being perceived and acknowledged as an authority.
  4. Authority can be demonstrated and perceived in two distinct ways. People with authority can demonstrate their strength (potency) in an ‘authoritarian’ or ‘authoritative’ way.

Needless to say that we support the ‘authoritative’ style.

Awarding and withdrawing authority

The challenge is that authority can also be withdrawn whenever people start questioning the strength (potency), substance, habitus, or status of a person.

This is the democratic-liberal potential of the authoritative style. It’s awarded by people who prefer making up their own mind. Thus, it can be withdrawn in case of misuse or misinterpretation.

Consequently, authority is no longer a privilege but based upon more knowledge, commitment, and creative power others perceive and acknowledge as Cyril Northcote Parkinson has already argued half a century ago.

What we need in companies, organizations, the general public and the internet is an authority culture with basically everyone being able to identify and demonstrate authority. More precisely, an authority that is aimed at cohesion and authoritative effects, that provides trust, security, liberty, and orientation. Our authority code can serve as a key instrument to help to get the idea of this culture accepted and acknowledged in business and society.


Bibliography (German)

Acatech (Hg.): „Die digitale Transformation gestalten. Was Personalvorstände zur Zukunft der Arbeit sagen“, München, 2016 (acatech Impuls)

Verhaeghe, P.: „Autorität und Verantwortung“. München, 2016 (Kunstmann).

Fürstberger, G., Ineichen. T.: Commitment gewinnen als laterale Führungskraft. Freiburg, 2016 (Haufe).

Auctority (Hg.), „Wem folgt Deutschland? Eine Studie zu Autorität und ein Modell für die Praxis“, Freiburg 2018


We are happy to send you the survey documentation by mail. Just leave a message on our web site or send an e-mail to connect[at]auctority[dot]net with your contact details.


Fotohinweis: 2photo on unsplash