A Coaching Power Tool By Ying Shing Wai, Agile Coach, HONG KONG
The Conflict Between Autonomy vs. Authority
In a hierarchical organization, top management controls and oversees the whole organization by setting up different directions, strategies, goals, policies, and decisions. These managers have position power to force their colleagues to execute their instructions. These top-down instructions may not be resistible in a normal situation. Otherwise, the organization will be in chaos.
On the other hand, the lower-level managers and workers handle the day-to-day activities. They execute the plans to realize the strategies and achieve the business goals. Their results are directly affecting the revenue of the business. This major group of people is working in different functions. Therefore, the strength of mass is the power they have.
Middle managers are living in these two types of powers. They are interacting with high-level management and low-level management which have different behavioral styles respectively. Social conflicts and confusion happen whenever they are failing to conform to the role.
We might think that middle managers have to put the strategies from the top into reality and reflect the work situations from the low into strategy adjustment. Based on the results of the Milgram experiment, most people would fully obey the instructions from higher authorities. They would put the instructions from top-level management with higher priority, even the highest. So that, they either force the low to complete the goals without any space for change or think of their alternatives to overcome the technical issues without reflecting on the top. The stress formed.
So, whenever an issue came, here are some general responses from middle management:
- “I have no choice! My boss wants this only!”
- “I don’t know what to do! I am not authorized!”
- “This is the other’s fault! I have done the best!”
- “They (lower-level managers and workers) did not follow…”
Autonomy vs. Authority Explanation
What Is Authority?
The meaning of authority from the Cambridge dictionary:
- “The official power to make decisions for other people or to tell them what they must do”
- “A group of people with official responsibility for a particular area of activity”
- “The ability to influence other people and make them respect you, especially because you are confident or have a lot of knowledge”
When a person was promoted or invited to a higher position, it is supposed that he had better performance, characteristics, knowledge, or experience than the other subordinates. He has higher authority which is coming from his supervisor(s) or higher-level management. He has the power to make decisions and is responsible for all activities within scope.
But, from Peter’s Principle,
Every position in a given hierarchy will eventually be filled by employees who are incompetent to fulfill the job duties of their respective positions.
That means whenever a person gets the power of a new position, they have to overcome the change of needed competencies and the new job duties. And, here is the list of common issues in competencies:
- Poor communication skills
- Weak leadership capabilities
- Not willing to change
- Poor relationship-building skills
- Ineffective task management
- Poor leadership development of others
- Lack of personal development
- Fear of making decisions
Due to the incompetencies, lower-level managers or workers may not work smoothly with middle managers as expected. At the same time, higher-level managers may also not get the good results from them as expected.
Therefore, the newly granted authority could not help them to complete the job more manageable. On the other hand, authority becomes a type of expectation from the top and the low. Then, this creates pressure.
What Is Autonomy?
The meaning of autonomy from the Cambridge dictionary:
- “The ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else”
- “The right of a group of people to govern itself or to organize its activities”
Middle-level managers convert the strategies and goals into business results. From a high-level management point of view, they have the right to govern the teams’ work with them. On the other hand, from a low-level management point of view, they have the abilities and space to make decisions without any control.
In reality, middle-level managers think that the situation is reverted. They follow the instructions strictly from high-level management and cannot make their own decisions even if the instructions may not be feasible. And, they cannot govern the teams as they may not have enough knowledge, information, ability, and capacity to do so. They are not living with any autonomy.
Converting Autonomy vs. Authority Into Strategies
On the emotional side, conflicting roles lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety, reflecting the tension between incompatible social expectations. Physically, the high-stress levels that accompany such conflicts are risk factors for a large number of health problems, from hypertension to heart disease. As if that weren’t enough, conflicting roles can disrupt cognitive performance and the ability to focus on a task without getting distracted.-From Havard Business Review: Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting
Although the coaching could happen whenever stress and anxiety come in the client, the client had to request the service pro-actively and might not be aware. On the other hand, the stress and anxiety would happen whenever before or after the event that:
- Creating plans and actions for converting strategies and goals into business deliveries. Or,
- Receiving reports about the business performance results and planning for the next actions.
These could help the coaches, coachees, and leaders to see the opportunities and create a highly structured approach to planning the coaching session.
Here are the examples:
- Strategic Planning and Review
- (Cross-)Department Business Planning and Review
- Project Planning and Review
- Engaging Project and/or Operation Team
- Production Issue Review and Follow up
- Personal Performance Planning and Review
- Relationship Alignment
Before the event, we could focus more on exploring what is coming from authority and finding the autonomy space. Then, after the event, based on the outcome, we could focus on the discovery of autonomy and authority to see what we have learned. Then, we can explore the actions to adapt to the updated situation.
Exploring Autonomy vs. Authority
Middle managers are playing an essential role in the company, especially in a large organization. They have the experience, capability, resources, and potential to complete the missions. On the other hand, they are facing self incompetencies and conflicts between expectation and actualization. Extra training may help to upskill and improve their performance and increase their potential. But, the interference (awareness of stress, incompetencies, and autonomy), which is affected most, is not minimized.
Authority looks powerful in managing an organization. But, it won’t help the middle management works better. On the other hand, it creates stress and blocks the chance for exploration. Exploring the stress and incompetencies helps the middle management aware of the relationships with others. Moreover, it helps them to rethink the reality of restrictions in their mind and the possible options they did not aware of. These are helping them to understand their autonomy.
Here are questions for exploring the stress:
- Where is the stress come from?
- When do you feel that stress?
- What is the signal in your body when you feel stress?
- What is the impact of the stress on your performance?
- What can you do to deal with the stress?
Here are questions for exploring competencies for working with others:
- What are the impacts of this action?
- What have you learned?
- What will you do differently?
- What do you need to learn further?
- What skills do you want to be better at?
- If this skill is improved, what does it look like?
Here are questions for exploring autonomy of instruction, strategy, plan, etc:
- About the understanding:
- What do you agree and disagree with?
- What are the commonalities you find?
- What is the importance of the conflicts for you?
- About the opportunity:
- What is possible for you?
- What can you do NOW?
- What do you want to change if you are authorized to do so?
- What is your consequence if the instruction is not done/is followed strictly?
- About the support:
- What supports can you provide?
- What support do you need from your supervisor(s) / teams?
Lumen Candela. (n.d.). Types of Management | Boundless Business. Types of Management. Retrieved April 26, 2021
Cambridge Dictionary. Autonomy. Retrieved April 25, 2021
Cambridge Dictionary. Authority. Retrieved April 25, 2021
Hayes, A. (2021, March 20). Peter Principle: What You Need to Know. Investopedia.
LaMasters, T. (2017, June 8). 8 Characteristics of an Incompetent Leader. Forward Leader.
Eric M. Anicich, & Jacob B. Hirsh. (2017, March 22). Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting. Harvard Business Review.
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, April 9). Milgram experiment. Wikipedia.
Whitmore, J. (2017). PART II The Principles of Coaching. In Coaching for Performance Fifth Edition: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership UPDATED 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (5th ed., pp. 37–78). Nicholas Brealey.