Authority And Power in Organizations Research Paper

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There are countless different ways of defining power in organizations and its relationship to authority. In this research paper, these differences are explored in terms of three broad perspectives identified in the literature—managerialist, critical, and discursive approaches. Each approach is discussed in depth, and their assumptions and insights compared. (Also see Hardy and Clegg 1999, Palmer and Hardy 2000 for extended discussions of different approaches to power.)



1. Managerialist Approaches: Authority vs. Power

Managerialist research on authority and power is predicated on a rational orientation, which seeks to make organizations more efficient and effective (or to understand why they are not). Authority is defined as the recognized, legitimate right to make a decision. Power is typically employed by those opposing management, resisting change, or pursuing self-interest, and who seek to subvert the ‘legitimate’ power embodied in the organizational hierarchy. When writers acknowledge that managers use power, as opposed to authority, they suggest that it is only in self-defense—to pursue organizational goals in the face of resistance. Accordingly, managerialist work on power stems from an interest in why decisions which ‘ought’ to be rational are instead political as interest groups use their power to influence decision outcomes in their favor. Writers in this tradition thus tend to differentiate between ‘illegitimate’ power and ‘legitimate’ authority. Since authority is a ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’ phenomenon that results from the formal design of the organization, it is largely excluded from analysis and research concentrates on ‘illegitimate’ power exercised outside formal hierarchical structures.

The managerialist approach to power in organization and management theory (OMT) has been heavily influenced by early community studies of power carried out in other disciplines. In this section, an overview of this work is provided, followed by a discussion of the OMT literature in more detail.

1.1 Community Studies Of Power

Early studies of community power focused on how decision outcomes are produced (Dahl 1957). Researchers analyzed key decisions to identify the power relations prevailing in a particular community. The object was to determine who made these decisions: if the same groups were responsible, the community could be said to be ruled by an elite group. If, on the other hand, a variety of groups had an impact on decision outcomes, the community—and also American society in general—could be described as pluralist. These researchers found the latter.

Several assumptions underlay this research. First, all individuals were assumed to be aware of their grievances and to act upon them by participating in the decision-making process and using their influence to determine key decisions. Second, the decision-making arena was assumed to be open to everyone and, therefore, the absence of participation indicated that actors agreed with decisions. Third, it was assumed that power was exercised only in decisions where conflict was clearly observable, and that conflict was resolved only through decision-making and not in other ways (Lukes 1974).

Lukes (1974) refers to this work as a one-dimensional view of power. He identifies a second dimension that emerged as researchers challenged the assumptions underlying the work of the pluralists. Bachrach and Baratz (1962) questioned whether decision-making processes were open to everyone, and argued that nonparticipation meant that individuals could not secure access to decision-making processes, rather than reflecting genuine satisfaction. Research began to focus on how participation was constrained by the suppression of the needs of the nonparticipants. Bachrach and Baratz showed that issues were excluded from decision-making, enabling actors to confine the agenda to ‘safe’ questions and the arena to ‘safe’ participants. They called this process ‘nondecision-making’ because it allowed the more powerful actors to determine outcomes from behind the scenes.

While the work on nondecision-making broadened the research agenda, it continued to operate on similar assumptions as the one-dimensional view of power. Specifically, it assumed that some form of conflict was necessary for power to be exercised (Lukes 1974). Thus, from a theoretical perspective, the first and second dimensions converge: both focus on the exercise of power in or around the decision-making arena as part of a deliberate strategy to achieve intended outcomes. Although the power mobilized through nondecision-making may be less visible than decision-making power—since opponents may be sidelined rather than directly confronted—it is still premised on the existence of conflict and opposition.

1.2 Studies Of Power In OMT

An examination of early studies of power in OMT shows that, although conducted separately and with a different rationale, they adopted a similar view of power as the community studies described above. Many studies focused on uncovering the sources of power that allowed actors, who did not possess legitimate authority, to influence decision outcomes. In this way, researchers began to differentiate between formal, legitimate power—authority—and informal, illegitimate power.

Other work linked informal power to the ability to control uncertainty. The strategic contingencies theory of intraorganizational power (Hickson et al. 1971) went on to argue that subunits were powerful when they were able to cope with greater amounts of uncertainty, were central and not easily substitutable—in other words when other subunits depended upon them. A similar theoretical development came with the resource dependency view (see Pfeffer 1981). Theorists started to identify the resources that constituted the bases or sources of power, such as information, expertise, credibility, prestige, access to higher echelon members, and the control of money, rewards, and sanctions (Pettigrew 1973). They also questioned whether simply possessing scarce resources was enough to confer power, arguing that actors also had to be aware of their contextual pertinence and sufficiently skilled to deploy them. This process of mobilizing power was typically referred to as politics (Pettigrew 1973), which further reinforced the idea that the use of power was illegitimate, dysfunctional, and self-serving.

This approach to power concentrates on the link between power and the control of scarce resources that help actors to influence decision-making processes and defeat opposition. Those individuals with the greatest access to power sources and the greatest skill at putting them to use were the most likely to prevail in decision making. Decision outcomes produced in this way were described as political, rather than rational, and thought to be at odds with the interests and objectives of those in formal authority. That power was used in the first place was due to the existence of conflict:

it is clear that political activity is activity which is undertaken to overcome some resistance or opposition. Without opposition or contest within the organization, there is neither the need nor the expectation that one would observe political activity (Pfeffer 1981, p. 7).

In this way, the use of power was inextricably linked to situations of overt conflict associated with the struggles as actors sought to protect vested interests.

This work on power converges theoretically with the study of the first and the second dimensions of power. First, both community and OMT researchers challenged existing models of decision making. Pluralists refuted elitist views of decision making predominant in sociology, while management studies of power challenged the existence of the rational model of decision-making (although they often, implicitly or explicitly, ascribed to it as the desirable mode of functioning). Second, both bodies of literature adopted a behavioral approach that focused on the overt exercise of power in the decision-making arena, and both argued that decision outcomes were influenced by actors’ access to and expertise in using power. Third, both are interested in how power determines decision outcomes (albeit that power itself is dysfunctional compared to the preferred rational functioning of organizations). Finally, both bodies of work employed similar definitions of power, i.e., the ability to get others to do what you want them to, if necessary against their will (Weber 1947) or to do something they otherwise would not do (Dahl 1957).

While managerialist approaches in OMT have produced insight into some aspects of power, existing organizational arrangements—particularly in the guise of legitimate authority—are excluded from analysis. Power represents dysfunctional interruptions in the far more desirable flow of rational decisions by self-interested actors who engage in its political mobilization, a term whose negative connotations has helped to reinforce the view that power is illegitimate and dysfunctional. As power and authority were pulled further apart, interest in the latter was replaced by increasing fascination with the former. Consequently, as the interest in power grew, the managerialist approach increasingly took authority for granted, never wondering how it got there or whose interests it served—power was what counted.

2. Critical Approaches: Power, Authority And Domination

Research in the critical tradition, a term used here to refer to a diverse body of research, adopts a rather different approach to power and authority than the managerialist studies described above. Critical theorists argue that the power embedded in formal organizational structures and processes is not neutral, rational, or logical but, rather, it specifically serves managerial interests. Hence, hierarchy is not authority, but power and domination; and actions taken to challenge it constitute resistance to domination, and not the illegitimate use of power. Critical theorists examine how power is embedded in societal and organizational structures, ideologies and narratives. They assert that much of what appears to be apolitical is, in fact, both a product and medium of power. This ‘radical’ view (Lukes 1974) has helped to expose how power, concealed in the legitimate trappings of structures, rules, class mechanisms and cultures, produces quiescence and prevents conflict from arising. In this section, the development of this ‘radical’ view of power is examined and its somewhat uneven adoption in OMT explored.

2.1 A Radical View Of Power

Having identified the first and second dimensions of power described above, Lukes (1974, p. 24) presented a third dimension of power. He argued that power can be used to shape perceptions, cognitions, and preferences to the extent that individuals ‘accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they view it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial.’ Consequently, the study of power cannot be confined to observable conflict, the outcomes of decisions, or even suppressed issues. It must also consider the question of political quiescence: why grievances do not exist; why demands are not made; and why conflict does not arise. Furthermore, this use of power is particularly important in sustaining the dominance of elite groups by reducing the inclination of subordinates to employ their discretionary power.

Lukes’ interest in the societal and class mechanisms that perpetuate the status quo relates to the ability of dominant classes to define reality to support and justify their material domination, thus preventing challenges to their position, and avoiding the necessity of using more coercive, visible forms of power. According to this view, stable organizing power is based on the ability to avoid conflict by rendering power less visible and making it appear legitimate.

2.2 Radical Views In OMT

The fact that organizations tended to serve managerial interests had not been lost on organizational researchers. Nor had the political advantages of legitimacy gone completely unnoticed. One writer who attempted to draw legitimation processes into the OMT fold was Andrew Pettigrew, who argued that politics involved creating legitimacy for demands through the management of meaning. Pettigrew (1979) showed how interest groups legitimized their demands to prevent conflict through symbolic activity. Other writers examined the way in which power was embedded at a ‘deeper’ level in organizational structures and ideologies (e.g., Clegg 1975). In both cases, political actors try to section off spheres of influence where domination is perceived as legitimate and thus unchallenged. This use of power is largely invisible and designed to avoid conflict rather than defeat it (Hardy 1985).

Another group that adopted a critical perspective was labor process theorists who focus on the dynamics of power and resistance in relation to phenomena such as gender, technology, ethnicity, managerial work, and other aspects of the structuration of work and its organizational context. More recently, such work has critically examined the empowerment and teamwork practices that characterize contemporary management practice. Far from providing employees with more power, these practices embody subtle, invisible controls. Writers argue that empowerment terminology helps to avoid conflict and resistance by emphasizing consensus and cooperation, and managerial control is reinforced through the language of the team effort and peer pressure. A critical perspective sees empowerment as an exercise in the management of meaning, designed to enhance the legitimacy of organizational goals and to influence behavior unobtrusively (Hardy and LeibaO’Sullivan 1998).

Despite a growing body of critical work, many writers in OMT continue to cling to managerialist assumptions and to define power in terms of conflict and illegitimacy. Rather than delve into the power hidden in and mobilized through apparently neutral structures, cultures, and technologies, these researchers preferred to view these constructs as apolitical management tools. For example, mainstream writers on organizational culture have gone to considerable length to avoid any association with power and politics, presenting cultural change in neutral terms which suggest that it is to everyone’s advantage.

In summary, critical approaches to power are substantively different in their assumptions than managerialist views of power. Power is domination, authority is one form of domination, and resistance is a repudiation of that domination. Power and resistance are differentiated in order to indicate ‘qualitatively different contributions to the outcome of power relations made by those who exercise power over others, on the one hand, and those subject to that power, on the other’ (Barbalet 1985, p. 545). According to this approach, power is used not simply to defeat conflict, but to prevent it from arising in the first place. Critical theorists focus on this subtle, repressive use of power, attempting to reveal the hidden aspects of domination, helping to facilitate resistance, and enabling groups to free themselves from the effects of power.

3. Discursive Power: Reconstructing Authority

In this section, two bodies of work that examine the links between power and discourse are explored. First, the influence of Michel Foucault (e.g., 1980) is examined. Second, work on organizational discourse, which attempts to combine critical and Foucauldian insights, is assessed.

3.1 Foucault: The End Of Authority

This approach challenges the very idea of authority by denying the existence of ‘sovereign’ power, which underpins both managerialist and critical approaches. Gone is the idea of a supreme authority that determines organizational outcomes, whether they are ‘legitimate’ goals or subtle forms of domination. Instead, a network of power relations—or discourses—captures the advantaged and disadvantaged alike.

We use the term discourse as shorthand for a whole set of power knowledge relations which are written, spoken, communicated and embedded in social practice. These relations have power and truth effects and it is the consequences that follow which are a major concern of a discourse analysis (Knights and Morgan 1991, p. 254).

Power as discourse is no longer a convenient, manageable resource under the control of autonomous, sovereign actors.

People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does (Foucault, quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982, p. 187).

In other words, actors may manipulate resources, structures, or meanings with the intention of achieving particular outcomes but, according to this view, no matter how hard they pull on the ‘strings’ of power they are unlikely to attain them.

The reasons for these limits to power and authority lie in the pervasiveness and complexity of power relations. First, this network of power produces the subject (Knights and Morgan 1991). According to postmodern views, the individual is not a stable constellation of essential characteristics but an occupant of multiple, socially constituted categories. Identities are salient only insofar as they are socially recognized. Thus the subject is not a ‘given’ but produced historically through power and knowledge. This effect of power is not necessarily alienating or repressive, as stressed by critical theorists: it can be productive and positive. Power transforms individuals ‘into subjects who secure their sense of what it is to be worthy and competent human beings’ (Knights and Morgan 1991, p. 269). This productive and positive side of power leads to the continuation, rather than the dismantling, of power relations. Also, resistance can exert a high price when the individual has to reject a part of oneself in challenging existing power relations.

Second, such approaches challenge the (critical) idea that one can escape regimes of power through knowledge, arguing that knowledge can ever be separated from the effects of power. Knowledge does not strip away the effects of power to reveal the ‘truth’; all it accomplishes is the embodiment of new and different forms of power. What is accepted as ‘true’ are those mechanisms that ‘enable one to distinguish true and false statements … the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; [and] the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true’ (Foucault 1980, p. 131).

Third, the embodiment of power in every aspect of one’s life—including identity—makes them difficult to repudiate. They are experienced as reality, making alternatives difficult to conceive of, let alone enact. Resistance can usually only be conceived of in terms of prevailing power relations and is subsequently ‘colonized’ by them. It therefore tends to reinforce existing power relations rather than overthrowing them (Clegg 1989). In this way, the emancipation for which critical approaches strive becomes illusory, despite the contention of those writers who argue otherwise.

Foucault’s work posits a very different conceptualization of power than both managerialist and critical views. Not only is there no autonomous subject waiting—or willing—to be liberated through critical awareness, it is also erroneous to assume that emancipation can be achieved through the knowledge gained through critical reflection. Even if resistance was successful, the resulting situation could never be free of power—it would simply represent a different power regime. Moreover, these power relations affect all actors—capital and labor, employers and employees, researchers and research subjects. No one has the privilege of standing outside power.

Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or rather something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization … [Individuals] are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power (Foucault 1980, p. 98).

This power is hard to escape. It encompasses, surrounds, and infiltrates in ways of which individuals are often unaware. It is productive yet constraining; it makes them what they are, yet prevents them from becoming anything else. As actors try to achieve and escape power, authority becomes an illusion and politics a futile struggle.

3.2 Organizational Discourse: Resurrecting Authority

Foucault’s work focuses attention on how the institutionalization of practices and structures embody sets of power relations that are deeply embedded in the taken-for-granted rules and practices that constrain action (Clegg 1989). This form of power is best understood as ‘systemic.’ It lies in the ‘power of the system in the unconscious acceptance of the values, traditions, cultures and structures of a given institution or society’ (Hardy 1994, p. 230). It also emphasizes the discursive aspects of power—how actors are locked into positions by way of the linguistic practices available to them to make sense of a situation. As the literature on power has evolved, writers have sought to combine critical conceptions of power with Foucauldian insights and, in so doing, challenge and modify both approaches to power.

This work emphasizes an analysis of discursive practices to show how discourses produce subjectivities and identities, constituting members in ways that define the possibilities for interaction in a particular context. This form of power lies neither in the possession of individuals nor the relationships between them, but is an inherent aspect of organizational life, reproduced by the day-to-day communicative practices and struggles of its members. Important power struggles are not those about the allocation of material resources or decision-making capabilities, but those that form around the ability to ‘frame discursive and nondiscursive practices within a system of meaning that is commensurate with that individual’s or group’s own interests’ (Deetz and Mumby 1990, p. 32). However, unlike critical theory’s conception of ‘real’ interests and ‘false’ consciousness, discursive approaches show that, through the production of identity and subjectivity, interests are also discursively produced. Further, knowledge and meaning impinge on the identity of all individuals as they participate in the production of organizational life, including those privileged as dominant and authoritative. Organizational reality is characterized less by the domination of one group over another, but by complex discursive practices that ‘define what it means to be an organizational member and … allow for the privileging of managerial interests over others (Deetz and Mumby 1990, pp. 32, 39). Identity formation is thus embedded in communicative practices in which all actors participate and from which none can escape.

At the same time, these theorists have challenged Foucault’s agentless and deinstitutionalized conception of power that has frustrated writers with its deterministic and pessimistic view of actors as powerless influence the discourses that define them (e.g., Reed 1998). These writers assume that actors do engage in purposive discursive activity as they attempt to produce particular outcomes (Deetz and Mumby 1990), albeit within the meanings and understandings embedded in the larger discursive context. Power is both enabling and constraining, productive and oppressive, local and institutional. In other words, discursive resources, embedded in multiple and contradictory discursive contexts, are mobilized by agents, even though their agency is constrained by larger discursive structures.

This approach sees discourse as the medium and product of power relations. It makes certain behaviors and practices possible and, in so doing, constitutes organizational reality. Discourses reproduce, transform, and obscure power relations and are, therefore, political.

[D]iscourse as a political practice is not only a site of power struggle, but also a stake in power struggle: discursive practice draws upon conventions which naturalize particular power relations and ideologies, and shape these conventions themselves, and the ways in which they are articulated, are a focus of struggle (Fairclough 1992, p. 67).

Thus the act of invoking discourses through the creation and dissemination of texts and talk, and through the use of particular communicative strategies (e.g., rhetoric, narrarative, metaphors, etc.) can represent political strategies. Accordingly, researchers focus on how a particular discourse positions actors, which actors secure rights to speak, and which do not. They examine the way in which actors draw upon discourses, and the language, genres, and linguistic strategies they use. They explore the meaning attached to different categories of object in the discourse, the procedures, and practices that are invoked, and the way in which particular actors stand to gain or lose from the employment of the discourse.

In this way, researchers hope to understand the interconnections of structure and agency. Foucauldian theorists tend to dismiss both: structure, because they fail to explain how it got there in the first place; agency, because they do not believe that it exists. In this way, they are unable to distinguish between ‘open doors’ and ‘brick walls’ (Reed 1998, p. 209).

If power/knowledge discourses are open, dispersed and ambiguous as Foucault suggests, then how does any particular discursive formation—such as ‘enterprise’, ‘excellence’ or ‘designer culture’—achieve the level of institutional legitimation and range of organizational enactment presumed in the notion of disciplinary or ‘panopticon’ power? (Reed 1998, p. 208).

This work, implicitly or explicitly, combines insights from critical and postmodern views, despite the assertion of some writers that critical and postmodern epistemologies and ontologies cannot be reconciled. In so doing, it resurrects the notion of authority by acknowledging that certain actors and institutions are constructed as authorities and authoritative. Such authority may be a social construction but it is not random or arbitrary—purposive discursive activity enables some actors to construct themselves or others as authoritative, albeit with subject to limits and constraints, and in doing so, these actors are able to exercise power.

4. Conclusions

This research paper has examined a number of approaches to power and explored their insights into the relationship between power and authority. Managerialist views of power differentiate legitimate, formal authority from illegitimate, informal power. The former is assumed to be rational and functional, the latter is typically seen as ‘political’ and dysfunctional. This view of power is not contained within a particular body of literature on power; rather it permeates much of the mainstream work in OMT that sees organizations as, albeit flawed, rational decision-making systems. Critical approaches directly challenge managerialist approaches. They see organizations, not as rational, neutral, and objective but as managerial tools designed to fulfil the interests of one group at the expense of another. Power is embedded in the fabric of organizational life, hidden behind the mask of authority, and designed for domination. Discursive views of power wrestle with the notion of authority in different ways. Foucauldian approaches dispel the idea that either authority or power can be a pliable means of domination. Organizational discourse theorists have sought to rescue both power and authority from Foucauldian oblivion by resurrecting notions of agency and structure.


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