Want to Maintain Your Authority? Don't Make These Four Mistakes

Last Updated Mar 11, 2010 3:46 PM EST

If you've ever watched the hit TV show The Office, you know that the boss, Michael Scott, is portrayed as a likeable buffoon and none of his employees take him seriously. In a real office, however, you don't need to make mistakes nearly as outlandish as Michael Scott's for employees to undermine your authority.

I had a chance to talk recently with Robert Akerlof, a postdoctoral associate in applied economics at MIT Sloan School of Management about managerial authority. Akerlof's research, unlike traditional economic theory, does not run on the assumption of a fixed relationship between managers and workers (i.e., the manager tells the worker what to do, and the worker does it), but instead incorporates a sociological examination of office politics and leadership.

We spoke about a few of the things that managers do that can undermine their authority:

  • 1. Giving unclear or overly complex orders: Akerlof's research found that giving simple orders was key to maintaining authority. The more complicated an order, the greater the chance that employees will interpret it to their advantage.
  • 2. Hiring overqualified workers: "An overqualified worker tends to have the view that they know best," says Akerlof. "A boss' authority is in part based on the idea that they know best. So an overqualified worker can both be hard to manage and have an infectious attitude on the other workers, who will start to think, Maybe the manager doesn't really know what's best."
  • 3. Paying unfair wages: One of the surest ways of earning respect -- or lack thereof -- is through an employees' pocketbook.
  • 4. Going it alone: Making clear that orders (especially unpopular ones) come from headquarters can help a manager's authority. "Rely upon rules from the central office, and the central office can help by creating rules that managers can appeal to," says Akerlof.
Avoiding these mistakes is especially crucial for new managers whose authority long-standing employees may be inclined to ignore. Akerlof also has some straightforward advice for managers to follow in the long run: "Ideally, showing confidence, ability and intelligence will help a manager establish a deeper sense of authority over time."
  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.