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Balancing the authority gradient

Jun 22, 2018

Sometimes having a steep authority gradient can lead to poor decision making and is a sign of ineffective leadership in an organisation. Peter Gillespie explains how to avoid an unbalanced authority gradient.

The term ‘authority gradient’ refers to the negative effect that the perceived degree of difference in status between members of an organisation can have on effective communication and decision making. Too steep a gradient – a significant gap between, say, the CEO and the rest of the management team – means the CEO can ride roughshod over them, getting insufficient challenge to decisions; too shallow a gradient and the search for inclusion and consensus prevents timely and effective decision making. The authority gradient has to be at a good balance for an organisation to work effectively and efficiently.

Steep gradients are more common than shallow ones, have the most serious consequences, and the gradient steepens even further in stressful situations. The concept of an authority gradient is well established in aviation and health circles where the risk of making life-threatening errors has given rise to specific practices and procedures to cope. 

While it would be a stretch to say that business decisions are as critical as those in cockpits or operating theatres, most of us have likely experienced a situation where we thought the CEO’s actions were wrong, but kept quiet because he/she was an acknowledged authority. Or, when you spoke up, it was in the form of a gentle, respectful question, rather than a more assertive challenge. Such situations are reflections of steep authority gradients, so the issue of authority gradient in business is still worth considering.

A steep authority gradient

There are a few things to watch out for that, if less unchecked can steeped the authority gradient in your organisation:

  • CEO generally recognised as being far more experienced than the others around the table.
  • Arrogant CEO who attacks and intimidates those who challenge decisions.
  • Absence of diversity. The CEO’s direct reports largely come from the same era, background or training, resulting in an intimidating environment for anyone else.
  • Policies and culture reinforcing the CEO’s relative authority – all trappings of power and status, restricted access, corporate governance policies, but without any compensating informal structures like the CEO meeting staff at their desks, or having an open-door approach.

Why don’t junior staff challenge decisions?

Often times, when there is a steep gradient in an organisation, junior staff lack the confidence to speak up, often a by-product of the environment in which they are working. The experience of the CEO and others around the table is perceived as far more than their own, and they haven’t seen the CEO explicitly do anything wrong.

Because of the perceived experience of the more senior staff, junior staff might fear retribution, ridicule or embarrassment if they were to challenge decisions they disagreed with.

Sometimes, it’s not the junior staffer’s fault at all. Their direct boss, fearful of their job, will curtail objection to the CEO’s decisions, even though the CEO would welcome the challenge.

And, lastly, sometimes there is a lack of respect for the CEO. This is just the latest in a series of what one could consider to be erroneous decisions, so why bother to care anymore? 

However, there are a few things you can do to encourage junior staff to challenge decisions:

  • Be a CEO who listens, explains decisions and acts as a leader -- or encourage your CEO to do so;
  • Create a positive, open culture in the organisation where anyone can speak up from the CEO to the newest intern; and
  • Write policies specifically confirming the legitimate avenues of dissent.

Creating a balanced authority gradient

Finally, how can you challenge decisions you know are wrong?

  • Trust your intuition and experience as a Chartered Accountant. If something feels wrong to you, it probably is.
  • Be prepared, properly briefed on what is going on in the organisation, awake and listening.
  • Stand up for colleagues who are being attacked for, or ignored when, challenging decisions.
  • Be assertive, clear and concise with your challenges, giving solid business reasons for your arguments.
  • Don’t automatically respect the party line of the “finance thinks it’s too expensive” variety – stick to the long-term logic of the business
  • Don’t be fobbed off with some lame reply to challenges. Stick to your guns until your challenge has been accepted, or you’ve been convinced that it’s the right decision after all.

Conclusion

The issue of authority gradient should be considered whenever human issues of management are being considered.  Everyone – the company, the CEO and the junior staff – have their specific and important roles to play.

Peter Gillespie FCA is the Director of Meaningful Metrics.