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Stewart Anderson

Quality Insider

Lessons from Egypt: The True Nature of Authority

Is held by subordinates

Published: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 05:30

The recent events that have unfolded in Egypt and resulted in the overthrow of an authoritarian regime by the Egyptian people contains an important lesson for organizations: Authority does not exist unless it is accepted by those in lower positions.

Most organizations have a hierarchical design in which it is held that the higher one’s position in the hierarchy, the more authority one wields. Yet, as we saw with the events in Egypt, even if authority is wielded by those at the very top of the hierarchy, it is impotent unless it is accepted by those below.

The acceptance theory of authority finds its roots in the writings of Chester Barnard. In his groundbreaking book, The Functions of the Executive (Harvard University Press, 1938), Barnard postulated his theory of authority, which held that any person within an organization will only accept a communication as authoritative when four conditions are simultaneously satisfied:
1. The person understands the communication
2. At the time of his decision, the person believes that the communication is not inconsistent with the purpose of the organization
3. At the time of her decision, the person believes that the communication is compatible with her personal interest as a whole.
4. The person is physically and mentally able to comply with the communication


The implications of this theory for effective organizational functioning are significant. How is it possible for an organization’s management to secure the cooperation among its members—which is necessary for achieving organizational goals—when the determination of authority rests with the subordinate?

Barnard gives full exposure of this question in his book. A partial answer can be found in his statement on page 174: “When the authority of leadership is combined with the authority of position, [persons] who have an established connection with an organization will grant authority. Nevertheless, the determination of authority remains with the individual. Let these ‘positions’ of authority in fact show ineptness, ignorance of conditions, failure to communicate what ought to be said, or let leadership fail (chiefly by its concrete actions) to recognize implicitly its dependence upon the essential character of the relationship of the organization to the individual, and the authority if tested disappears.”

Although it is commonly held that authority is delegated downward within an organization, Barnard’s theory suggests that the opposite is true: Authority is delegated upward according to the degree to which subordinates will assent to communications and directives issued from above.

What does all of this have to do with quality and continuous improvement? Simply this: An organization cannot function or perform well unless the nature of authority is grasped and practiced.

Performance can be defined as the achievement of purpose and desired results. An organization in which communication in pursuit of purpose are not accepted as authoritative and willingly assented to by subordinates is an organization that will not achieve its purpose.

Too often in many firms, continuous improvement programs and initiatives have been issued as directives from top management, and because these directives are not accepted as authoritative by subordinates, their assent is only partial at best, and the initiatives flounder and fail.

For continuous improvement programs and initiatives to succeed, top management needs to ensure that the essential conditions for the proper wielding of authority are present. If the purpose of the organization is neither made clear nor understood by subordinates, a necessary condition for subordinates to fully assent to any directive or communication is violated.

Similarly, if top management does not make it clear how such initiatives will be compatible with the best interests of subordinates, then again, assent will only be partial.

Proponents of popular improvement methodologies such as lean and Six Sigma have, in this author’s opinion, given scant regard to how human relationships function within an organization, and how the cooperation and contribution necessary from members for successful implementation will be induced and elicited.

In the worst cases, the lack of assent to “authoritative” communications and directives by subordinates manifests itself not just as passivity, but as outright resistance. How often, for example, have we seen an organization try to implement kaizen-type initiatives driven by directives from top management, and the buy-in from lower levels is totally passive or even hostile?

Studying the roots of kaizen through the lens of Barnard’s theory of authority offers an interesting perspective. Japanese firms are extremely hierarchical, but unlike Western firms, they seem to have grasped the essential notion that authority resides with the subordinate and not with position within the hierarchy. Kaizen has succeeded at Toyota, not because Toyota managers are authoritarian like their Western counterparts, but because Toyota mangers understand that their authority is granted by subordinates who see kaizen as being in the best interests of the organization and themselves. It is the responsibility of Toyota managers to bring about the conditions for the maximum assent from lower levels to communications. This will result in the upward delegation of authority and the inducement of cooperation and contribution essential for effective kaizen.

From my interaction with firms of all types and sizes, every example of suboptimal organizational performance and functioning that I have seen leads me to conclude that such suboptimization is never the failure to use or implement improvement tools and methods. Rather, it appears to be grounded in the human relationships that exist within the organization, and the degree to which these relationships are present, healthy, and functional. Using authoritarian management and structures to try and achieve results, without understanding the true nature of authority, is one example of how organizational performance can be easily subverted and diminished.


About The Author

Stewart Anderson’s picture

Stewart Anderson

Stewart Anderson is a partner with Anderson Lyall Consulting Group, a Toronto-based consulting and advisory firm that helps firms develop their competitive advantage. Anderson’s background and expertise includes competitive strategy and value chain engineering. He has advised companies in the manufacturing, service, and contract manufacturing industries. Anderson is completing his bachelor of arts in economics and he is a certified trainer in lean manufacturing principles and techniques.