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When Expertise Authority and Executive Authority Clash

Some folks believe that having that big title equals carte blanche decision-making. A communications colleague of mine ran into this when he was working on a public relations crisis. His phone rang one day, and the voice on the other end insisted that he handle the crisis in a specific way. It was his boss. My buddy gently pushed back, to which his boss responded, “Well, am I not the CEO?”

CEOs and other leaders throughout organizations have what’s called executive authority. My comms colleague, however, had what’s called expertise authority. In his book “Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics,” Mike W. Martin defines executive authority as “the legitimate power to make decisions and direct the conduct of others in pursuing an organization’s goals.” He also refers to executive authority as “organizational or institutional authority.” Expertise authority, however, is the “mastery of a field of knowledge and practical skills.”

Two colleagues having a meeting
Photo: Christina Morillo

We see that there can be one heck of a conflict, but there doesn’t have to be. When executive authority and expertise authority clash, leaders would do well to recognize opportunities to turn it around in the name of successful organization outcomes. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it; we’ve all seen it. Expertise authority versus executive authority often leads to mistrust and a lack of organizational progress.

Martin points to a notorious example of expertise authority being ignored–the 1986 Challenger explosion. Prior to the launch, the senior engineers at Morton Thiokol, who designed the booster rockets, recommended against the launch. The temperature at Kennedy Space Center was below the tested safety range for the O-rings, sensitive rubber gaskets that helped seal parts of the booster rockets. An O-ring specialist even voiced concern about their erosion on previous flights. However, the senior engineers’ recommendation was rejected by four top managers. Two of those top managers agreed with the senior engineers until one of them said, “Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat,” according to Martin. Even worse, NASA officials withheld the senior engineers’ recommendation from other NASA officials. During their investigation, the Rogers Commission discovered a boatload of other issues that contributed to folks with the final say overruling those who had intimate technical insights that could have saved the lives of the Challenger crew.

When executive authority is used to beat expertise authority down, it also melts away innovation. Feel my pain as a marketing and communications professional, an area that higher education sees as a one-way service function. With such an unsophisticated view of marcom, my time was mostly spent on completing tasks rather than being truly creative. When I had bosses who allowed me to own my space, however, I was able to create solutions to benefit my institutions.

Here’s the most important consideration–creating an environment where executive authority partners with expertise authority breeds trust and loyalty. Going back to my positive experiences, my teams and I were protective of leaders who seriously considered our insights. We also accepted their guidance. This is when I’ve noticed internal conversations moving forward to organizational solutions.

The rub, for those who want to exercise expertise authority, is that folks must truly own their jobs. If they aren’t experts, they have to move in that direction and their leaders have to see it happening. At the same time, the folks with executive authority have to recognize that they should play a part in helping their people build expertise. Here’s another thing, the relationship between executive authority and expertise authority works best in a growth mindset environment where people truly believe in their abilities to play vital roles in advancing their organizations.

For sure, the organization benefits when executive authority and expertise authority co-exist. But that coexistence should be based on intention where leaders intend to trust their people and their people intend to provide leaders with the tools they need to make the best decisions.


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