Authority – a short enquiry

Authority – a short enquiry

Authority - a short enquiry

Authority is the legitimate use of power.

But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Authority – a short enquiry

The NIODA Group Relations Working Conference in November 2019 (Identity, Gender, Authority and Community at Work) has a focus on how difference and identity influence the ways we take up authority and leadership. Authority is the legitimate use of power. But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Perhaps it means legitimate given the laws of the group, community or organisation, however formed and even when those laws may appear to be unfair or unethical? The idea of the ‘divine right’ of a monarch is seen as bestowing legitimate power from a deity, for example; or the power of a dictator may be legitimate in the sense of their power being supported in the law even when that law is despotic. There is an underlying assumption here that authority is linked to charisma – a term derived from the Greek ‘gift of grace’. Although now meaning a special power to influence others, its origins in divine conferral are clear.

Or, legitimacy may mean when the law and authority is endorsed by a majority, such as we believe occurs in a democracy – even if that majority may be persuaded by ‘false consciousness’ or misinformation, or even when there is awareness of the influence of ideological thinking (Zizek 1989 – The Sublime Object of Ideology) but with a blind trust in figures of authority.

Authority and its legitimacy, from a psychoanalytic perspective, stems from primary authority figures – parents, other family figures and teachers. The unconscious picture of authority is formed in early experience and then projected onto new figures of authority. The legitimacy here lies at both somatic and psychological levels and strong emotions of love, fear, anger and dependency are attached. Consequently, legitimacy in social settings may be achieved insofar as authorities mirror or resonate with unconscious images.

And, what of authority in those organisations that operate in a capitalist system? Authority lies in the structure of governance. First, company boards confer authority to senior staff. And boards, if they are vigilant and driven by organisational purpose, will attend to markets. In this sense, the authority invested in the board is market influenced, if not market-driven. The process is similar in family-owned or individually owned businesses. Except that there may or may not be a board in the governance structure. In the not-for-profit sector, most often a board drawn from the community and specialist professions is in place.

Such organisational systems are quite different to a democratic country government. In democratically elected government organisations, the legitimacy of authority is ultimately in the hands of ministers who delegate to public servants (even if the public servants have other powers of their own). Whereas the authority of the minister is endorsed by election from the group who vote, in companies and other organisations authority is bestowed from a few in specialised roles.

All this indicates that there may be good or bad authority as well as good or bad leaders who wield authority. As authority makes decisions on behalf of the group/community, so good authority makes decisions that fit laws that benefit the group as a whole and its individual members as much as possible. Any political system may become corrupt and no longer benefit the group, so it is important to find the safeguards that work against corruption: some of which might be in the ways we construct the nature of authority. So, the question of authority crosses the paths of group psychology/dynamics and political analysis.

How we conceive of authority is influenced by the way we recognise the source of its legitimacy: who confers what on whom. Put this way, it is apparent that identities are at play. Our creation of, and then perceptions and experiences of different identity groupings are critical because such distinctions so often endow the different groupings with differential charisma, power, capabilities, emotions, opinions and worth on the basis of unconscious assumptions, defensive dynamics and rivalrous intentions.

This group relations conference gives members the opportunity to look at how gender, identity and our understanding of community, in our work organisations in particular, affect the nature of authority and leadership. The conference uses experiential methods so that conference participants can learn from their own experience of gender and other identities in the different groups that the conference offers. The conference is a learning community structured as a temporary organisation.

The staff of the conference have been chosen to work alongside conference members in this exploration and has developed a program for this purpose.  Please visit www.nioda.org.au/events for a description and for online registration.

Susan Long

legitimate authority
Conference Director
NIODA 2019 Group Relations Conference
Community at Work

Community at Work

The 2019 NIODA Group Relations Conference aims to explore the idea of the community at work, especially those systems within the community that affect or are affected by identity and gender, and how these are affected by authority relations see Group Relations Working Conference.  This is the first of a series of blog mini-articles on concepts related to the conference.

Community at Work

The idea of community is different for different people. For many it is about the broader social level, one might say the domain of community. This has resonance for those who think of the communities where they grew up; the local people, businesses, schools and sporting facilities. Community is understood as a social group who share a common location, government, interests and history. Following the illuminating concept of institution-in-the-mind put forward by David Armstrong, we might say that we each have a
community-in-the-mind: an idea of community that we act within. Even an isolated family or individual may have a community-in-the-mind that affects their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The links and breaks between the local community and the workplace are perhaps most evident in rural or country areas where locals are most likely both neighbours and work associates; acquaintances and tradespeople. Roles between local community members require clear articulation as is evidenced by many a local doctor, teacher or council member where people mix in both social and work environments.

Yet now, in the twenty-first century, often people interact more with others at a distance through social media, the internet, phones and travel than they may interact with local neighbours. Communities may be distanced and virtual. Importantly, much of the current citizen’s time is spent at work and identity is forged in one’s professional work, industry or trade. So, we can understand that the workplace itself contains a community-in-the-mind for its staff members. This idea is supported through the attempts of workplace leaders to foster common values and ideals in organizational members. The idea of a community lies beneath workplace culture, whether it be close-knit, under-bound, industrious, rewarding or troubled.

How can we understand community at work?

A work organization contains many systems. The main or primary purpose of the organization gives rise to tasks and these are managed through a task system. This is the system that produces commodities or services. But those who study organizations point to other systems that are present and have an influence on that task system. For example, there is the sentient system of emotional links between people; systems of interpersonal links and friendships; likes and hostilities. There is the political system of varying power relations – some authorised, some informal. There are social systems of hierarchies derived from external society – these may be linked to gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, skin colour, sexual preference or even more transient differences such as smokers and non-smokers; punks and hippies. Some social/work hierarchies may derive from the internal history of the organisation and the types of roles undertaken by different people, often but not always linked to the task system. For example, secretaries and managers; surgeons and interns or stokers and drivers. Other social systems are linked to informal roles, such as the ‘nurturer’, the ‘bully’, the ‘flirt’ the ‘boss’s favourite’ or the ‘spy’ – however pejorative such titles suggest. At work we are invited, both consciously and unconsciously to take up roles in many of these systems and we can find ourselves at times ‘pulled in’ to enact roles that we would rather not.

All these task, political and social systems interact in many subtle and unconscious ways. Together they are present in the community at work; the community both contains and supports these systems so it is best that we develop collaborative and creative work communities in order to ameliorate the problems of destructive hierarchies and promote more resilient, productive and fulfilling work lives. It is critical that we discover the largely
unconscious community system in our workplaces and how we each take up our roles within this community.

I think the community of an organisation is where its true purposes and values lie. Not the values selected because they are simply politically correct or appealing to the market, but the purposes and values that lie at the heart of an enterprise. These should be discovered in order for an organisation to truly grow and prosper.

We are all equal in our roles as members of the community, however that is conceived. No matter the hierarchy in the task, political or social systems, a community is of equals and that has an energy of its own. What this means about leadership and authority for task; how authority and power are distributed; and how differences are managed in any workplace community, given this underlying equality, is worth discovering.

 

Susan Long

 

Conference Director
NIODA 2019 Group Relations Conference

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