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Distinction between Authority and Power

Sometimes two terms ‘authority and power’ are used interchangeably because of their common objective of influencing the behavior of people on whom these are exercised. However, there is a difference between these two. While authority is the right to command, power is the capacity to command. The traditional concept of hierarchy finds its essential rationale that someone has the right to command someone else and that the subordinate person has the duty to obey the command. This is implied in the notion of official legitimacy, legal in nature rather than social and informal. However, the right to command does not necessarily connote the capacity to command. For example, a person in the society may have capacity to influence the behavior of others by his money power or muscle power but he may not have right to do so.

Sometimes, right and capacity are clearly separable and can be identified easily, but at other times, the two get intermingled. For example, commanding others on the basis of money or muscle power is clearly separable but in an organization two managers of equal status and authority may have different type of command in actual practice. The difference arises because one manager may acquire more power due to his personal factors. Here authority and power go together and distinction is not easy. In fact, there is a continuum of authority-power relationship. At one end, right and capacity would be one, while at the other end, both would be completely separable. Between these two extremes, it is possible to find a number of variations. Thus the major difference between authority and power can be identified as follows:

1.         Authority is legitimized by certain rules, regulations, laws, and practices. In the case of power, there is no such legitimization.

2.         Authority is institutional and originates because of structural relationships. Power emerges because of personal factors and varies with the individuals. In the management of an organization, authority is the central element of formal organization and systematic communication. Power reflects the political realities within the organization and relates to the subtler, more informal patterns of action and interaction that occur.

3.         Authority exists in the context of organizational relationship, mostly in superior-subordinate relationships either direct or otherwise. Power relationship many exist between any two persons and organizational relationships may not be necessary.

Although these differences have been suggested, it is important to recognize that much of the controversy surrounding right and capacity to control has involved ascertain degree of semantic confusion. Much heat has been generated as to whether authority, defined to include capacity, really flows down from the top in traditional fashion or whether it arises from the bottom as a kind of consent of the governed. For example, Barnard has supported the later view when he has emphasized the flow of authority upward due to the consent of governed. Notwithstanding this, the distinction between authority and power exists on the above lines at least on conceptual level.