How Far Does a Formal, Authority-Based Relationship Go

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Linda A. Hill and Lowell Kent Lineback

Many managers take an authoritarian “do this, do that” approach with their people. It’s not that they necessarily enjoy controlling others but that they believe exercising authority is the most efficient way to influence others and get results.

For many of them, this approach reflects the reason they became managers. They want to have an impact on their organizations, to be the ones who “drive the business,” the ones “who make things happen.” As one said, “I . . . always wondered what it would be like to be in charge and get people to do things the right way.” When they issue a directive, they’re essentially saying, “Do it because I’m the one who’s been given responsibility and put in charge. I’m the boss.”

What approach do you take? Do you rely on the authority that comes with being a boss to get the results you need? Do you try to influence people by telling them what to do? Do you think that’s what you’re supposed to do?

If you do, you may be among the many managers we see who misconceive the nature and purpose of their formal authority. Many think it’s the center of their work, the key means of influencing others. They think it is literally what makes them managers. Moreover, some even think it changes who they are and their place in the world.

Misconception: Do You Think Authority Is Your Key Means of Influencing Others?

“I’m the boss!” It’s a common mistake to think management is defined by formal authority—the ability that comes with a title to impose your will on others. In fact, formal authority is a useful but limited tool.

People Want More Than a Formal, Authority-Based Relationship with the Boss

Many managers—especially those who were achievement-driven stars as individual performers—don’t even think about relationships. They’re so task oriented that they put the work to be done and their authority as boss at the heart of what they do and assume they can ignore the human aspects of working with others. 

The problem is that most people don’t want your authority to be the be-all and end-all of the relationship. They want a personal, human connection, an emotional link. They want you to care about them as individuals. They want you to encourage their growth and development. Research tells us this kind of human relationship with the boss is a key factor determining an employee’s level of engagement with the work. 

We know of a small-company owner, a warm, decent woman, so pressed for time she consciously decided to avoid small talk at the office. She never opened up to people about herself or asked about their lives and interests. She didn’t, that is, until her people rose up and expressed, through an intermediary, that they hated how she treated them. They wanted a real, human connection with her, even if she was “the boss.”

The Limits of Formal Authority

Most managers soon discover, often to their dismay, that authority isn’t very effective for influencing people and getting results.

Your Formal Authority Often Fails to Produce Compliance

You may think people are perverse or stubborn, but there are many reasons they don’t always follow your instructions.

They disagree with you. They think there’s a better way and feel free to exercise their own judgment.

They think something else is more important. It’s up to you to set deadlines and make your priories clear.

They don’t understand what you want. Making directions more and more explicit can only go so far. Most work today requires some judgment and thought, and so it’s almost impossible to give instructions specific enough to eliminate all misunderstanding or cover every contingency.

They find circumstances have changed, invalidating your directions and forcing them to improvise.

They dislike being bossed around. Peremptory orders given in a tone of voice or choice of words that’s belittling only invite minimal compliance or subtle disobedience. As someone told us, “I fixed my boss. I did exactly what he said to do.” Be aware that some people are especially sensitive to “being bossed around.” They bring to work a history of troubled dealings with authority figures. By the time you meet them, they’ve accumulated a set of ambivalent and even negative feelings about authority, which they apply to you and any instructions you give. At the extreme, these are the people from whom a simple directive can produce angry resistance.

People may have a view of authority that differs from yours. They may bring to work generational or cultural attitudes that lead them to distrust and question authority. That will make them less likely to comply. This is not personal. It’s simply a different point of view that you and they will need to work through. As companies and work groups become more diverse, these differences will appear more often.

Finally, people may not comply because they’re confused. The growing complexity of the workplace and more fluid organizational structures with multiple bosses and temporary teams can complicate and blur lines of authority. Many employees may be confused by what seem to them conflicting demands and expectations. Also, in virtual teams with members spread far apart, distance diminishes the ability of formal authority to create compliance. It’s easy to forget about a boss 3,000 miles away, especially when there’s another just down the hall.

All of these reasons create a workplace in which authority is at best an uncertain means of influence.

Your Formal Authority by Itself Cannot Generate Commitment

You need more than people’s simple compliance. You need them to be engaged with their work and want to do it well. You can command how your people spend their time, even where they direct their attention, but you cannot decree what’s essential for good work—you must win their commitment by winning over their heads and hearts. When you rely primarily on your formal authority, you’re fundamentally managing through fear—fear of the consequences of disobedience. Fear is a limited, ultimately corrosive and demeaning way to get what you want from others. It certainly will not generate personal commitment or real engagement with the work and the team.

Your Formal Authority Cannot Create Genuine Change

Change often brings uncertainty, loss, and pain for those it touches. Yet those are usually the very people who must embrace the change and make it work. Real solutions can only come from those involved, and real change requires that they alter not only their behavior but their thinking, assumptions, and values as well. Authority cannot compel such change.

Your Formal Authority Is Less Likely to Elicit People’s Knowledge and Insight

Every individual in an organization possesses knowledge, skills, and new ideas of potential value. (If they don’t, it’s your responsibility to replace them with people who do.) Managing people primarily by exercising your formal authority—by telling them what to do without truly seeking their input—is far less likely than a more open approach to capture that full value. Insisting on “I’m the boss!” places a huge burden on you. The head of a large high-tech company told us of a discussion she once had with her head of HR. Her company had installed a program to encourage broader participation in decision making, and she was frustrated that product development seemed to be moving too slowly. “Maybe we have to go back to the old command-and-control system,” she said. “If that’s what you want,” said the HR person, “I’ll help you. But there’s one problem. You have to be right all the time.” Laughing, the CEO said, “I’ll never forget what he said. I told him, ‘That’s never going to work.’ ”

No one person can possibly possess the knowledge, experience, and wisdom needed to make every decision. Organizational success today requires the involvement of everyone at all levels. Less authority-driven organizations are more likely to elicit and take full advantage of the talent and experience of their people. We see firms in all cultures moving in this direction, even those that are traditionally hierarchical.

For example, a leading Indian IT firm introduced several practices to encourage employee engagement and foster innovation.  Those practices include 360-degree feedback for all managers, including the CEO, who posts his reviews on the company intranet and encourages others to do the same. In Indian culture, which has historically valued hierarchy and the status it provides, that’s a shocking move, but it models the openness the company is trying to achieve.

Misconception: Do You Think Your Authority Defines You Personally?

You’re at a social gathering chatting with a stranger who asks, “What do you do?” Do you answer, “I’m in charge of . . .” or “I run . . .”?
Or do you say, “I’m responsible for . . .”?  It’s a small distinction but a telling one.

Here’s another question: visualize yourself and your group. Do you see yourself above your people, directing them from a higher level? Or do you see yourself in the center, the hub connecting all the pieces?  Organization charts, which literally place managers over those they manage, certainly encourage the “I’m above you” point of view.

Both these questions begin to reveal the dark side of formal authority—that those who have it begin to believe it’s about them, that it changes who they are. Do you think it’s about you? Do you believe it sets you apart personally? As one senior manager once told us, “Sometimes I forget what it was like before I was a boss.”

Ask yourself this: “Do I take pleasure in being able to tell others what to do?” We don’t mean pleasure from the accomplishment of work. We mean gratification from seeing others obey you. Do you enjoy the simple act of exercising your authority? You needn’t be an egomaniac to admit you do. Virtually everyone does. Society, the media, and popular fiction all encourage it.

Indeed, we all care about status and influence. We scan our environment to figure out who has it and to assess how much we have in comparison. Such concerns are wrapped up with the human instinct for survival. So for us to view our job as boss in personal terms is a natural impulse.

The issue is one of degree. Is your sense of the personal privilege conferred by your authority overblown? Do you make too much of it? Is the personal status that comes with formal authority the central feature for you of being a boss?

Research confirms the old saying that “power corrupts.” The frequent exercise of formal authority can lead you to inflate your own sense of self-worth and denigrate the value of those on whom you exercise it. As a manager who had recently taken over a group described his experience: “Then review time came around . . . it was quite an exercise . . . You hold their job, their career, in your hands, so to speak. They have an inbred fear.”

As people defer to your authority, as you sense that fear, you may be tempted to believe they defer to you personally—it’s you they fear. Once that belief takes root, you’ll be tempted to exercise your authority even more. Its seductive effects on your ego and self-esteem tend to grow the more you use it. No wonder you hear almost every day of powerful people whose inflated sense of personal importance led them to perform stupid, inconsiderate, and even illegal or unethical acts. You think such things only happen to other people, but they can happen to anyone, including you.

It can happen insidiously, a tiny step at a time. We know managers who at first took pains to explain the reasons for what they wanted. But they became so accustomed to compliance that they stopped explaining and simply issued orders. They didn’t even realize what they were doing.

What this means in practical terms is simple: don’t let being the boss go to your head . The use of authority without respect for others or to satisfy personal needs rarely sits well with others. Such use can take several forms: issuing orders without explanation, demanding personal loyalty and praise, foisting your opinions on others, stifling disagreement, focusing on the perks that come with your title, or any number of other actions that advance you personally at the expense of others who are “below” you. If you see yourself primarily as “the boss,” the one in charge, the one above those you manage, it will limit the willingness of others to accept your influence.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Review Press. Excerpted from Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Copyright 2011 Linda A. Hill and Lowell Kent Lineback. All rights reserved.

About the Author(s)

Linda A. Hill and Lowell Kent Lineback are authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Linda A. Hill, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, chairs the HBS Leadership Initiative; headed the team that developed HBS's required MBA leadership course; and has chaired several HBS executive courses, including the High Potentials Leadership Program. Lowell Kent Lineback, a writer and collaborator, spent nearly 30 years' as a manager and an executive in business and government.