Authority Explained

I told you before about the difference between authority and power. Now that we are holding these working definitions, we can drill down…and deconstruct authority in more detail.

I’m drawing from Group Relations work here, and providing actionable guidance for thinking about authority. I am purposely being minimalist here, providing the essentials only.

Remember, authority is defined here as “the right to do work“. Also, keep in mind that authority is always something conferred. It is given, and can be taken away.

Formal Authority

Formal authority is what is conferred when you occupy a formal Role, for example, when you become Treasurer of a non-profit organization. That role comes with a Title, and a collection of Tasks (“work”) you are formally authorized to do. Police for example are formally authorized to enforce the law.

Personal Authority

Formal Roles are well-defined in theory and actually have much more that is undefined and ambiguous. How far can I go? What are the limits of my authority around a task? Etc. It is here that your approach comes into play. Personal authority is your personally held, “perceived right” to do the work a certain way. 

The policeman that pulls you over can let you go without a warning. That policeman makes a decision about how to handle his role in a given situation.  That’s personal authority.

We are all familiar with ‘overstepping’ authority and the related dysfunctions of that. Like a policeman who tries to make you let him into your home when he knows for a fact that he can’t make you let him in, unless certain other conditions are true. That cop is attempting to over-step the formal authority boundary of a role.


Understepping and Overstepping

We are far less familiar with ‘understepping’, that is, not fully “taking up” a given role.

This is a bigger and far less understood problem!

When your sense of personal authorization prevents you from fully occupying your formal Role, serious dysfunction results. Why? Because you leave what I call “scraps of authority” lying around. If you do this on the job, for example as a Manager or Director,others are unusually quick at picking these these scraps up, and using them outside of the Role they are intended for– the one you are occupying!

The distortions created by this cause a range of organizational illnesses- a.k.a. “dysfunctions.”


Informal Authority

Informal authority comes without formality: without a formal Role and related title, etc. It is the authority that most of the others confer to you. Most of “the others” may or may not occupy formal, highly authorized Roles.  (Usually it is a mixture of people in various Roles.)

The source of informal authority is the willingness of others to have you do some specific work.

We all know of people who get loads of critically important work done, yet they do not occupy a “higher-up”,  formal Role (with formal authorization) inside the group. Yet these folks seem indispensable to how the team or organization functions.

What gives here?

Informal authority shows up as influence. It’s the conferred right to do certain kinds of work. It is conferred from others. It’s based on reputation, and a certain kind of willingness on your part. It is offered to you, and can be accepted by you…or not. It can be given, and taken away.


I just defined the following for you: formal authority, personal authority and informal authority…subcategories of “authority, the right to do work.” I hope you find these definitions useful. In the next post, I will deconstruct influence, that available-to-everyone, “always-on” ability to literally cause a shift or “change in state” in our socially constructed universes. I plan to discuss willingness, roles, and being “drafted” into roles…with and without your consent.

social construct:

a perception of an individual, group, or idea that is ‘constructed’ through cultural or social practice.


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