The Four Kinds of Authority

The way we understand the concept of authority affects teacher’s and parent’s relationships with children.

Dr. Gordon talks about four basic definitions of authority. The first one is authority based on expertise. This kind of authority is derived from a person’s expertise – his or her knowledge, experience, training, skill, wisdom, education. For example, we say, “let’s rely on the authority of the dictionary”; or “he is an authority on corporate law”; or “she speaks with authority.” This is often referred to as earned authority. We will call this Authority E, the E standing for expertise.

In a family, authority E is in operation frequently. For instance, Dr. Gordon would say that he would gladly accept the authority of his wife or daughter to influence him to change his shirt or pants (or both) if he was told that they don’t match. However, he’d influence his wife with directions driving through a strange city using his navigation skills and good orientation that he acquired when serving as an army pilot.

Anja will often accept her 14-year old son’s authority on fixing a frozen computer or finding something on the internet quickly. Her son will accept her authority to budget the pocket-money spending.

A second kind of authority is based on position and title or a mutually understood or agreed-upon job description, which defines a person’s duties, functions, and responsibilities. A committee chairman is given the authority to open and close its meetings; a policeman has the authority to issue a speeding ticket; a teacher has the authority to tell students to take out their spelling books; the driver of a car has the authority to tell passengers to fasten their seat belts. We will call this Authority J, the J standing for job. It’s sometimes also called designated or legitimated authority.

The key concepts here are “mutually understood” and “agreed upon” job description. For this type of authority to work in human relationships, the people involved must genuinely accept – sanction, endorse, support, approve – the right of the person “in authority” to direct certain of their behaviors (but not all, of course.)

In Karin’s family there are many interactions in which Authority J plays a major part. There are long-term agreements with regard to who does what job. Her husband, Thomas, is in charge of grocery shopping, so it’s fine for him to be told by his daughter that she is tired of the cereal she’s been eating for a while and she’d like to try a new one. Hannes, the nine-year old is responsible for taking the trash out, hence it’s legitimate for his mother to point out to him that the trash is overflowing. Maria, the 13-year old daughter agreed to set the table for dinner and when Karin is ready to serve the food and the table is not set, it’s natural that she’ll ask Marie to hurry up.

All of the duties and responsibilities in the above examples were made legitimate by virtue of their having been arrived at by the involvement of each of us in a group decision-making process that ends up with a decision acceptable to everyone. It is from this mutual acceptance of the decision that Authority J derives its amazing potency to influence behavior. This is why it is sometimes called “legitimated authority.”

The third kind of authority is based on informal contracts. This kind of authority in human relationships is derived from the many understandings, agreements, and contracts that people make in their day-to-day interactions. For example, it’s a common practice in many homes that it’s understood if a member of the household said (or left a note to that effect) to be home at a certain hour and then can not make it, that person will call home to inform the family of the change. The purpose of this agreement, obviously, is to avoid causing worry or anxiety. We call this type of authority Authority C, the C standing for commitments or contracts.

There are many examples of Authority C in every family. Some are things like the understanding to knock on someone else’s bedroom before entering, others are informal agreements like which chair is used by whom for TV watching, or that whoever returns home first will get the mail and turn the heat on.

Authority C derives its potent influence from the personal commitments it represents. In later editions of this newsletter we’ll examine Authority C in greater depth and give examples of using it to influence youngsters both at home and in school.

The fourth and last kind of authority is based on power; the power one person has over another. We will call this Authority P, P standing for power, power to control, dominate, coerce, bend to one’s will, make other do what they don’t want to do.

This is the type of authority people almost always have in mind when they talk about parents and teachers needing or exercising authority, or when they wish that children would “respect” adult authority, or when they talk about a “breakdown in authority” in families or schools, or when they want children to be “obedient to authority”, or when they complain that kids today are “rebelling against authority.” Authority P is also the kind of authority we generally mean when we speak of a “hierarchy of authority” in organizations.

In the next editions of this newsletter we’ll look at the damaging effects of Authority P with regards to children and we’ll explain how adults use this kind of authority. We’ll look at how most commonly Authority P is reflected in the practice of rewards and punishments, an attempt to control children. And, we’ll find out why rewards and punishments so often do not work, and never work in the long run.