For quite some time, we’ve been asking ourselves questions about authority: What actually is authority? How is authority formed and lost? Do we still need the outdated concept of authority these days with influence being measured by clicks, shares, and likes? With swarms collaborating on a level playing-field and seemingly working smoothly without authority and leadership? A survey among one thousand participants in Germany has provided valuable insights and the fundamentals of our project work.
In principle, authority is more or less neutral: Sociologists agree that it provides norms for our living together and structure for our society. However, authority may also trigger passionate arguments as everybody has different ideas about it. It’s time for a change.
These are the top findings from our survey
- Authority is perceived quite positively. At least 55% of the participants consider authority positive or even very positive.
- Authority is, at its core, based upon potency. The participants describe this as assertiveness and leadership capability. They associate potency with respect and prestige. Both are attributed to people with authority. Both are withdrawn immediately upon mistakes, misconduct, and failure.
- Authority is characterized by three essential attributes. These are substance (knowledge, skills, and experience), habitus (appearance and behavior) and status (responsibilities, rank, and title) with substance being most important.
- Authority is the counterpart of power. We follow people with authority voluntarily. However, people exercising power can also enforce following.
- Authority is ambivalent. It can be performed and perceived in opposite ways: aggressively by exerting influence in order to subordinate others and thus exercising power (authoritarian behavior), or cohesively by exerting influence in order to connect, to provide security and orientation, and to gather followers with knowledge, role model behavior, and persuasiveness. In the Anglo-Saxon world this is called authoritative behavior. We recommend adopting this term in our German vocabulary.
Some alarming facts about leadership
As authority forms a link between leaders and followers in the world of work, we went into detail. There were 202 respondents in our sample acting as people managers or leaders at different levels and 369 employees without leadership responsibilities. The results reveal a significant gap between what leaders and followers think about authority.
- Subordinates consider authority much more negative than leaders. On a seven-level Likert scale from -3 (very negative) to +3 (very positive), the arithmetic mean is .90 with one thousand participants having answered the question ‘Do you have rather positive or negative feelings about authority?’. More precisely: .38 for employees and 1.23 for managers. Does this show complacency at the top and frustration at the bottom of the hierarchy?
- In comparison to leaders and the overall mean value across all respondents, employees associate authority rather rarely with cohesive and authoritative effects like orientation, security, and trust. Does this mean that the employees’ experience with authority is entirely different compared to the way leaders think they demonstrate authority?
What are the consequences from these findings?
We think that there are two important fields of activity:
- Politics and society: We should neither attribute authority to trendy authoritarian ‘leaders’ nor to influencers with plenty of habitus and little substance. We should rather consider those people as authorities who are acting authoritatively and who provide guidance and security with their knowledge, ideas, and skills. In order to do so, we need to raise awareness. And in order to raise awareness, we need to develop benchmarks and a keen sense of how to identify substance. This should be the mission of educators and Communicators.
- Economics and business: In the world of work, we also need leaders and authorities who deserve being followed. This requires bridging the gap between leaders and subordinates when it comes to the perception of authority. Those who assume responsibility for providing security, orientation, and trust need to be capable of conveying this sensation to followers. Moreover, we should not disdain substance in terms of knowledge, experience, and skills. However, this happens all the time. With knowledge being available in abundance in mobile phones and databases and everybody having an opinion upon anything, authorities with expert knowledge are easily outshone. We need to change this. This should be the mission of leaders, human resources consultants, and associations.
How does that relate to our Consulting business?
We use these findings and insights in our project work:
- An important part of our work is to position people with authority in organizations, the market, and the public debate. Our understanding of the interaction of substance, habitus, and status and the way they change and develop the perception of authority helps us to strike the right note, to identify the right target groups and channels, and to open the right doors.
- Last but not least, we work upon developing and promoting an authority culture in organizations and the general public. An authority culture will enable people with more knowledge, skills, and ideas to take leadership no matter what their rank or status may be. Our programs about thought leadership and subject-matter ambassadorship as well as our presentations and talks about leading, following, and horizontal authority are based upon the findings and insights we got from this Survey.
Where can I get the Survey results and further information?
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.
Upon request, we provide additional insight into leadership and communication in talks, presentations, and Seminars.