Authority versus Persuasion

by Eric J. Van den Steen

Overview — In directing employees, managers often face a choice between invoking authority and persuasion. In particular, since a firm's formal and relational contracts and its culture and norms are quite rigid in the short term, a manager who needs to prevent an employee from undertaking the wrong action has the choice of either trying to persuade the employee or relying on interpersonal authority. In choosing between persuasion and authority the manager makes a cost-benefit trade-off. This paper studies that trade-off, focusing in particular on conflicts that originate in open disagreement. Key concepts include:

  • Persuasion and authority can be both substitutes and complements. In particular, authority and persuasion are substitutes when authority is highly effective but complements when authority is not very effective.
  • Persuasion is attractive on projects where effort or motivation is more important. The reason is that (under the assumption that executing a good project is more valuable than executing a bad project) the employee will exert extra effort if he or she believes more in the project.
  • The manager also relies more on persuasion (without authority) when employees have higher pay-for-performance incentives.

Author Abstract

This paper studies a principal's trade-off between using persuasion versus using interpersonal authority to get the agent to 'do the right thing' from the principal's perspective (when the principal and agent openly disagree on the right course of action). It shows that persuasion and authority are complements at low levels of effectiveness but substitutes at high levels. Furthermore, the principal will rely more on persuasion when agent motivation is more important for the execution of the project, when the agent has strong intrinsic or extrinsic incentives, and, for a wide range of settings, when the principal is more confident about the right course of action. 22 pages.

Paper Information