The Way We Think (2): Authority versus Power

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence” – Leonardo da Vinci

An earlier post presented an overview of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and a description of the development of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which seems to be a fairly reasonable attempt to describe the basis upon which many of our cultural Value systems are built.

With so many nations of the world, to say nothing of individuals, descending deeper into polarization and paralysis, Moral Foundations Theory leads to a better understanding of the types of bedrock upon which Values (Moral Matrices) are built, which can then lead to a better understanding of the Attitudes that lead to Behaviors and subsequently to more even responses to them.

In particular, MFT helps explain how different individuals in different cultures can build conflicting Moral Matrices on the same small set of bedrock foundations.  It also leads to a potential understanding of how these selfsame forms of bedrock (the Foundations) can also constrain the ranges of Choices individuals are able to make that lead to their Behaviors.

Of the six foundations*, the one that captured my attention most was the Authority/Subversion foundation, not the least because of differing cultural interpretations of authority, nor just because of our interpretation of authority and its expression in organizational culture as well as in the home, community, and government. No, it is of interest because of how it helps us further interpret and explain individual behaviors in group and organizational environments.

Overall, cultures vary enormously in the degree to which they expect respect to be shown for authority and the ways that parents, teachers, leaders, and others in positions of authority are treated.  (Many languages code respect directly into their grammar.  In French, vous is respectful; tu is familiar.  German, Romanian, and Dutch also code respect into formal and familiar speech.)

But, and this is a big but, Authority should not be confused with Power.

Unfortunately, this is a common and culturally widespread misunderstanding.

While we can readily identify someone operating in a “control rolein our lives, whether in families or organizations, the appearance of this role is not a recent development.  Anthropologists can identify this same role in human tribes and early civilizations.  The first sentence in The Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) states,

“Hammurabi, … , who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, … , so that the strong should not harm the weak.”

Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force; we can see indications of this elsewhere in The Code of Hammurabi where authority and power are distinguished from one another.

People we place in positions of authority take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice.  In essence we bestow this authority upon them and include the means to accomplish these responsibilities, and then hold them accountable for achieving them.

Where we go wrong is assuming that Power is the only means of exercising Authority.  As an unfortunate and unintended consequence, the people we call Authorities often overuse Power to exploit their subordinates for their own benefit while believing they are just.

This exploitation is in reality the “control role,” where having Authority is also presumed to mean the execution of direct Power to control what happens, to determine the outcome.  By controlling what subordinates do to achieve a desired outcome, authorities are actually employing a transactional form of leadership, a quid pro quo, so to speak.  “If you do this, then I will do that,” or occasionally, “If you do this, then I won’t do that,” depending upon the desire for reward or fear of punishment.

It can be helpful to look at relationships between employers and employees in organizations.  Research data indicate that only about 32% of employees are “engaged” in their work environment, that ~50% of employees are not happy in their work or workplace, and the main reason (~60%) that employees leave their jobs is because of their poor relationship with (or leadership style of) their manager.  All of this is consistent with the predominant assumption that the objective of Authority is to execute Power, with a resulting outcome that more resembles oppression rather than “prevention of harm to the weak” in order to accomplish goals.

We can easily rationalize this viewpoint if the desired outcome of exercising Authority is a tangible, quantifiable objective (a product, service, civil order, and/or justice) that requires Power to achieve, while at the same time ignoring (or not being held accountable for) any intangible, hard to quantify outcomes such as the subordinate’s mental state, attitude, self-esteem, happiness, or the organization’s (or nation’s) culture.

Looking closely, ignoring these intangibles seems to look a lot like subordinates are being pushed more to the Oppression side of the Liberty/Oppression foundation of Moral Foundations Theory.  This does not seem desirable (Note: tongue in cheek).

Another aspect affecting how Authority is executed and experienced is what is recognized as our asymmetry of competence, which applies equally to a subordinate (you and me) as well as to a person in Authority.  In other words, everyone has strengths and weaknesses (you’ve no doubt heard about these in performance reviews).  If a person promoted to a position of Authority presumes that this authority also bestows power into areas of their weakness, then they are more prone to assume a control role to achieve the outcomes for which they have been made responsible.  To boot, since subordinates are neither blind nor stupid, they become acutely aware of the (excessive) use of power by bosses to control areas of weak competence or complete incompetence.

What appointees to Authority often miss is, first, that subordinates (still neither blind nor stupid) are not only able to perceive when legitimate asymmetries exist, but second, when power is actually asymmetrically employed to achieve outcomes (that is, not used coercively and uniformly but exercised proportional with competence), that this is not inherently exploitative.

In other words, there is another, less recognized “role” available to people in Authority.  This alternative is what I would call the “influence role.”  This accepts asymmetrical employment of power depending upon a situation, and also responsibly seeks to work cooperatively to leverage other’s skills for the benefit of the entire, cohesive group.

Where the control role often leans to oppression (or Taking) to achieve a goal by the coercive, exploitative use of power, the influence role delegates and motivates subordinates to engage in a project, applying and developing their strengths, and thus not only contributing to the tangible outcomes but to intangible ones as well: self-esteem and group cohesion.  It’s a Making role.

The primary impact of the influence role, however, is that it readily extends beyond hierarchical relationships.  We have all been vicariously influenced in life by people we deem to have credibility in certain areas, and we choose not to be influenced by people whose credibility we suspect.

Ironically, one arena where this role is widely used is in celebrity testimonials for products and services.  In this case marketers are trusting that the public will not recognize any asymmetries of competence (or relevance), for instance, between an Olympic champion and a disposable razor.  Another related phenomenon is known as the Nobel Syndrome, where the media pesters a newly crowned Nobel Prize winner with questions in an unrelated area where they have no demonstrated expertise (maybe opinions, though).

Is there something that affects whether a person will gravitate to either the control role or the influence role?  I believe there is, and it lies in their own values and what motivates them to fill their needs.

Look at the control role in various contexts.  It is practiced in a transactional manner; you control the outcomes either by a carrot or a goad: a true a zero-sum game. People often try to practice controlling behavior because they recognize they are weak in a skill and need to overcome that impression and/or cover it up.  Abusive behaviors, refusal to recognize and correct poor decisions, etc., are indicators. The human need for respect runs quite high, especially in the male gender, particularly if one’s environment (nature and nurture) has been deficient.  From these and many other behaviors, it is easy to deduce that valuing or protecting self is a significant if not dominant element (remember, “self happens,” it’s unavoidable).

The influence role, on the other hand, is decidedly more transformational in nature.  When practiced intentionally, it seeks to mentor, coach, and/or motivate people to take initiative and responsibility to apply and develop their skills in a manner that not only produces a tangible outcome, but also contributes to intangible growth in skills, self-esteem, respect, and group cohesion. It is a positive-sum game where everyone gains.  In these cases, self, while always still present, takes a backseat role in a Moral Matrix or Values set that is more focused on others and the greater good.

With those observations in mind, it is easy to ponder if an “Authority Curve” relating both the control and influence roles might exist based upon a Moral Matrix or set of Values that encompasses the self versus the greater good Values we see in the Behavior Curve.

It turns out the “curves” are identical:


The Behavior Curve

The curve results from some reasonable assumptions (the complete development is here).

First, a set of Values (or any personal Moral Matrix) is made up of both internal values (self) and external values (group oriented or utilitarian values):
Selfinternal Valuesexternal = 1Self never disappears completely from our Values set, and the more self there is, the less room there is for external, greater good values.

Second, we can only exhibit one behavior at a time; we have to drop one behavior in order to switch to another.  This is a form of the Conservation of Behavior:
Sum of all Behaviors  = 1.

Third, there is a distinction between Integrity and Ethics.  Integrity is the characteristic of sticking to a set of Values (Moral Matrix) regardless of external circumstances (V. Putin’s values are totally different than ours, but he has high integrity in sticking to them). Ethics has developed to reflect what is “morally right,” and more often reflects a utilitarian view for the greater good.  In this case, a measure of one’s Ethics can be considered as the ratio of external Values to Self: Valuesexternal / Selfinternal

Fourth, a change in behavior should be related to our most preferred behavioral reaction in a given situation.  If it were perceived as a threatening situation, self-preservation would be most highly valued; otherwise a more utilitarian reaction would prevail.  Thus, a change (δ) in behavior would be inversely related to our Ethics: δ Behavior = 1 / Ethics, or

δ Behavior = Selfinternal / Valuesexternal

Gathering all of these together, we end up with a person’s Behavior, in this case a range of behaviors between a Control Role and an Influence Role, depending upon the ratio of Self to Values in his/her set of Values (Moral Matrix) in that situation:

Behavior (Controller or Influencer) = 1 – Selfinternal / Valuesexternal`

This is the curve in the graph above, and it leads to a number of conclusions.

First, as mentioned, Self never completely disappears.  But as one can see to the right in the graph, this is not completely bad.

Second, the more people are concerned about putting themselves first in a given situation the more controlling their behavior will end up being, to the left in the graph, and the more negative will be the behavior and results.  This is permitting hidden or sleeper values (self) to percolate up in priority depending upon the situation.  This behavior can have an overall negative influence on others’ contributions, undermining or actually subverting the group’s ability to perform.  Moreover, it vicariously teaches others that this is an expected and acceptable use of Power, thus reinforcing a bad practice.

Third, the conscious effort needed to move into and remain in the influencing role, to the right, is significant and seemingly delivers less positive impact than an equal ‘effort’ shifting to the left in a controlling role.  This is no doubt related to the saying: It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.  However, since the influence role is targeted at motivating others to contribute and has a transforming influence, it also has an amplifying effect as others make their positive contributions and have a similar influence on others.

The overall constructive, amplifying affects of the influence role are more than worth the conscious effort expended.  An influencer impacts people both directly and over a distance.  It also impacts them in a transformative way.  It exhibits Integrity (steadfastness to Values regardless of circumstances).  It also exhibits strong Ethics as it needs a well developed, understood, and broad based Moral Matrix built on all six foundations.

The control role impacts people close at hand, primarily transactionally.  It, too, exhibits Integrity, but to a Moral Matrix that can bend to the situation.  There are hidden sleeper values (they are a hidden part of the whole Matrix) but when circumstances arise their priorities change.  This is more properly referred to as Situational Ethics.  Rather than Ethics, it should be called Flexics.

All in all, not only is it a noble cause to aspire to the influence role, it adds a cascade of value to others, to groups and organizations, whole societies, and even to nations.

It’s a veritable rising tide.

*Note: the six identified foundations are: Care/Harm; Liberty/Oppression; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; Authority/subversion; and Sanctity/Degradation.  The Righteous Mind, p 357

Authority/Subversion foundation: The Righteous Mind, p 166-168
Control role: The Righteous Mind, p 165

About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 04: Games People Play, 10: Integrity, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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