Is This a Legitimate Use of Authority? Take This Quiz!

We love quizzes, don’t we? If my Facebook feed is any indication, most folks just can’t get enough of them. Today, you won’t learn what your spirit animal is or what 80s hair band you should have been in; you just get to have an opinion about a couple of situations.

1. Miles is the VP of Marketing at Giant Corp., with 50 employees in a large office. Maria is Miles’ executive assistant. She was hired for her highly polished, professional demeanor, mad Office Suite skills, and her ability to juggle his ever-changing calendar and keep him on task, even on weekends. At the end of one long workweek, Miles tells Maria to clean out the office’s refrigerator because the milk has gone sour and “something stinks in there.” (The refrigerator is communal; nobody in particular is responsible for tending it.) Is this a legitimate and appropriate use of Miles’s authority as Maria’s boss?

leadership trainingA) Yes, absolutely. It’s covered under “Other Duties as Assigned.” Miles just assigned Maria to clean out the office refrigerator. It’s no different than if he tells her to take notes at board meetings or make sure the presentation he needs before he leaves town next week is finished on time, without errors.

B) Are you kidding me? Cleaning out the whole staff’s office refrigerator has absolutely nothing to do with Maria’s job duties in any way, shape, or form. Miles has no business ordering Maria to do this task—it’s an illegitimate use of his position of authority over her and has the potential to undermine her trust and foster resentment in their professional relationship.

C) I have no idea. I can see both sides.

2. Gertrude is the Mayor of a small beach town that’s considering imposing a new tax on short- rentals like AirBnB and VRBO. The tax proposal is wildly unpopular with beach homeowners; not coincidentally, they’re a majority of the citizens of the town. But hotels are fiercely opposed to the competition of short-term-rentals and have offered Gertrude’s electoral opponent a sizeable chunk of cash if she fails to gets the tax passed. Gertrude calls the city council into a closed session and tells them if they want any of their own legislative priorities to see the light of day, they’ll vote for the tax, no matter how much their constituents howl. Is this a legitimate and appropriate use of Gertrude’s Mayoral authority?

A) Oh god. Again with the politics. I hate politics. Who cares?

B) Gertrude is completely out of line. And the next thing that happens in that closed-door session is somebody probably laughs in her face and says. “The last time somebody ordered me to do something I was 18. And it was my Daddy.  And I didn’t listen to him, either.”

C) Gertrude is doing what needs to be done as the Mayor. Politics is messy horse-trading and nobody really wants to see how sausage is made anyway.

OK…We’ll stop there.

Now, depending on your assumptions about leadership, authority and power, any of the answers could be considered “correct.” But if you’re a student/practitioner of L.E.T.—Leader Effectiveness Training—then you’ll recognize these two scenarios as explorations of the very nature (or natures) of authority.

…one must remember that in the English language one word, “authority,” is used for two entirely different concepts:

  1. Authority derived from knowledge, experience, expertise, training.
  2. Authority derived from the power to reward and punish in order to enforce obedience.

—Dr. Thomas Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training, p. 181

Dr. Gordon referred to the first kind of authority as AuthorityK (for Knowledge), and the second as AuthorityP (for Power).

We all naturally turn to people whom we know to be smart, wise, well trained, or experts when we need AuthorityK like an electrician, a great coder, or a hair stylist who can correct yesterday’s disastrous at-home haircutting experiment. And we listen to what they tell us to do, typically without question.

Dr. Gordon also added a third and fourth category of authority—AuthorityJ (for Job Definition) and AuthorityC (for Contract). AuthorityJ is “’sanctioned’ authority…that the recipients of the authority attempt understand and accept the right of the influencer to direct behavior…this type of ‘legitimate’ authority resides in the structured relationship between jobs or positions in an organization,” (p. 183, Leader Effectiveness Training) Examples include an executive telling her assistant to send an email, a PTA president shouting “Let’s all stand and sing the National Anthem,” and a nurse telling a patient to change into a gown. These are all legitimate and generally unquestioned uses of positional authority.

While AuthorityC may sound legalistic and daunting, it’s really as simple as the respect two people show a mutual agreement. “Jane’s team agrees to take the conference room from 9:00 a.m. until noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Juan’s agrees to take it on Mondays and Wednesdays” isn’t an actual contract; but if a few of Juan’s team members get up and vacate the room on a Tuesday for Jane’s team, they’re doing so based on AuthorityC.

I Fight Authority…Authority Always Wins

So why might Maria, an executive assistant to a VP, chafe at being told by her boss to throw away the whole 50-person office’s spoiled milk and rancid leftovers? (The correct answer is B, in case you haven’t figured that out already).

Why would the city council tell the Mayor, who legitimately outranks them, to take her strong-arm tactics about the new tax elsewhere? (Surprise! Another B! Although if you answered A that’s fine too.)

Those answers are the right answers because, while AuthorityJ is expected, routine, and an absolutely unremarkable part of every single workday, AuthorityP is arbitrary exercise of positional rank over somebody else outside of the legitimate duties, domains, and demands of the job. And it hurts everybody, including—in fact, perhaps nobody more than—the leader who turns to AuthorityP over and over and over again.

Fascinated? Intrigued? Interested in learning more about how to leverage your AuthorityJ in ways that will make sure nothing gross makes its way into the office milk next week? Learn more about LET.

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