What’s the Difference Between Power and Authority?

Most definitions for the words power and authority are vague, interrelated, and unclear. (Check here and here to see for yourself.) Likewise, definitions for the word authority often use the word power in the definition for authority. And as you might surmise, definitions for the word power often reference the term authority.

Which is which? Why have two words for the same general concept? Why two words? What exactly is authority? What exactly is power? What’s the difference?

What gives here? Is it any wonder we often are confused by the behavioral dimensions of authority and power in the workplace? How do we navigate this total lack of clarity about something so essential to being a social human being?

If you want to know about power, I strongly suggest you first study authority. There is no better place to do that than a Group Relations Conference. (See related links below.) At these conferences, we get to study leadership and authority in groups, in the here-and-now. These “conferences” can be quite unusual and are definitely NOT for everyone.

As a result of attending these Group Relations conferences, I have learned to hold two simple definitions that help to clarify objective reality when participating in groups. I teach these two specific definitions when coaching executives and Agile teams.

Understanding the nature of the difference between power and authority is important. When you understand the difference, and the nature of the difference, you can more fully realize what is going on when you interact with people in organizations, like where you work. Your family also qualifies as an organization.

As do any (online) groups where you have membership.


Here are the definitions I use when dealing with issues of authority and power. We must define authority first….

Authority: (noun) The right to do work.

Power: (noun) The exercise of authority.


Now, that didn’t hurt very much, did it?

I hope you consider using these definitions, try them on, and see how they work for you. You might be surprised at just how much clarity you can get from using these definitions.

You might also start to notice that most all organizational and family dysfunctions are driven by authority dynamics.

This has serious implications for those attempting successful Agile adoptions.


Related Links:

Group Relations Community:

http://www.akriceinstitute.org (watch the short video)

BART: Boundary, Authority, Role and Task: