The View from HR

Use of authority in the workplace requires balance

November 3, 2012 

Everybody knows that job responsibilities should come with actual, specified authority or there is little chance of success.

Each week in our classes at CAI, we see newly-minted team leaders, supervisors and managers. They are fun, eager and excited people full of great promise and willing to serve and make a difference. Sadly, however, when they actually get into the workplace, the challenges they face as leaders often turn their passion into confusion, frustration or worse.

Here is the challenge.

Authority comes from two basic sources: formal authority, given to you by your position or your manager, and personal authority, which comes from who you are and how you behave. Ideally, as a manager or an employee, you will have sufficient formal authority and personal authority to get your work done either by yourself or through others. But, you might be wondering, what happens when things are less than ideal?

High standards

New supervisors complain that their manager provides insufficient formal authority to accomplish a task. “The employees won’t listen to me,” or “I’m not seen as their boss,” are phrases we often hear. Maybe this is true, or perhaps the formal authority is unclear. Maybe the manager does not want to give up any authority. Maybe the employees do not even acknowledge the manager’s authority.

Whatever the reason, insufficient formal authority is only half the problem. Every day in every workplace, people are doing important work with and through others without a shred of formal authority from their position or their manager. They use their personal authority as an effective tool for results.

Personal authority is available to anyone who wants it and is willing to work hard enough to deserve it. You know who I am talking about. Those people who do what they say they will do, hold themselves to high standards, listen well, expect no more of others than of themselves and use good judgment in resolving roadblocks. They really want others to excel, they share credit freely, they have no political agendas and they stay focused on the important goals.

Respect and motivate

Personal authority can magnify the formal authority you do have. People want to follow, please and work hard for those they respect and see as motivated and going places. Adding to your personal authority some degree of “I am doing this because our manager wants it done, it is important to our work and I need your help” is (usually) more effective than “Help me with this or I’ll report your attitude to the boss.”

If you could only choose one type of authority in your role at work, which would you pick? A boatload of formal authority with a big stick, or buckets of personal authority earned by keeping commitments and doing the right things?

The highway is littered with managers who relied far too heavily on formal authority and lost their followers. Sure, there are times for unilateral and strong-armed orders. But the most successful leaders find the right balance and use their personal authority to get the most done.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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