Friday, August 20, 2010


IWS Documented News Service
Institute for Workplace Studies----------------- Professor Samuel B. Bacharach
School of Industrial & Labor Relations-------- Director, Institute for Workplace Studies
Cornell University
16 East 34th Street, 4th floor----------------------
Stuart Basefsky
New York, NY 10016 -------------------------------Director, IWS News Bureau


Asian Development Bank (ADB)

Knowledge Solutions


Informal Authority in the Workplace [August 2010]

By Olivier Serrat

[full-text, 7 pages]




The Insufficient Returns from Formal Authority in Organizations


Formal authority—the power to influence or command

thought, opinion, or behavior—is the defining characteristic

of societal and organizational hierarchy.1 Ideally, after

Ronald Heifetz,2 it is expected to serve five functions that

most will agree are indispensable to social life. They are to

(i) provide direction, (ii) offer protection, (iii) orientate roles,

(iv) control conflict, and (v) maintain norms. Then again,

in practice, there is a darker side to what formal authority

can do on any given day: for instance, a boss can restrict

a subordinate’s actions, invalidate his or her decisions, or

move for dismissal.


Charting a chain of command up a hierarchy, one will eventually locate someone (or

some group) who administers the organization’s collective decision rights (and enjoys the

perquisites ascribed to the function). With power comes a set of resources with which to

manage the holding environment of the organization and marshal attention. Yet, if formal

authority resides at the top in most types of organizations to this day, it is located there

as part of an exchange against overt expectations in a specific context.3 Therefore, it can

be taken away. Commonly, it is also lent on to lower-level managers according to the

relevance and importance of their positions (with which special rights and privileges are in

turn associated). Paradoxically, in all cases, managers can be made responsible for getting

things done but are not given the requisite authority—certainly not over their own bosses

or peers.




This information is provided to subscribers, friends, faculty, students and alumni of the School of Industrial & Labor Relations (ILR). It is a service of the Institute for Workplace Studies (IWS) in New York City. Stuart Basefsky is responsible for the selection of the contents which is intended to keep researchers, companies, workers, and governments aware of the latest information related to ILR disciplines as it becomes available for the purposes of research, understanding and debate. The content does not reflect the opinions or positions of Cornell University, the School of Industrial & Labor Relations, or that of Mr. Basefsky and should not be construed as such. The service is unique in that it provides the original source documentation, via links, behind the news and research of the day. Use of the information provided is unrestricted. However, it is requested that users acknowledge that the information was found via the IWS Documented News Service.

Stuart Basefsky                   
Director, IWS News Bureau                
Institute for Workplace Studies 
Cornell/ILR School                        
16 E. 34th Street, 4th Floor             
New York, NY 10016                        
Telephone: (607) 255-2703                
Fax: (607) 255-9641                       



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