Authority and using it wisely

As we advance through our careers, we probably all start with very humble roots, being part of a team, but wanting to make a personal impact. We want to succeed, we want to feel valued, and we want progress.

The more we move up the career ladder, the greater the impact of our decisions can be felt. As we rise, so too does the authority that we can wield, and this is where we get to a crucial problem point in modern organisations.

Most of us perceive the authority as a badge of honour, the ability to make great reforms and ensure that our view of the world is implemented. But what if the viewpoint is mistaken, that it lacks overall context of the problems the organisation faces?

The lean principles tell us to ‘respect people’ and this isn’t a token gesture. Years of study and empirical evidence suggest that people close to the task at hand can make more optimal decisions, yet more traditional decision makers in management move further away from the problem space. This sets a collision course between teams on the coal face that want to be autonomous, and management that need to achieve commercial outcomes and often give clear directives.

So why is this happening and how can we solve it?

The killer question to ask yourself as you rise through the ranks is “why do I want authority?”

Different people will have different answers, but if it is to seize control then there is a danger that authority becomes malevolent, often without intention. This could be expressed in some of the following example ways…

  • giving teams clear instruction regardless of their concerns or views.
  • the drive to hit delivery dates whilst ignoring the cost to a team and its health.
  • assuming a team is dysfunctional and writing them off, oblivious to their woes and needs.

If authority is misused then it has a real financial cost to an organisation, and revolving doors of developers will hinder any real progress and stability that is needed to mature ways of working that become efficient and fruitful.

So why did I personally want authority?

20 years into my career in technology I have worn many hats, from Developer, to Analyst, and worked in Delivery, but now I have the great honour and responsibility for multiple development teams as a Software Development Manager here at AO.

Over the years, I have witnessed managers wield authority with no real regard for the impact, by directing teams or constantly changing the rules and landscape that prevented teams from really enjoying their working lives and being truly successful. The teams felt they had no real voice and it created high stress.

Having been on the receiving end I made a conscious decision to move into management and see if I could turn the problem on its head, to seize authority so that it could be handed down to those more capable than myself to solve the complex problems we faced, and make life more fun too.

To ensure that the teams I support (see how I didn’t say manage) have the environment to learn, grow, and to choose their own destiny.

They are best placed to find solutions in their space as they are much closer to all the issues, most of which will be hidden from further up the hierarchy, even from me. As a manager, though I prefer the term Servant Leader, I can ask probing questions and spend time with the teams to walk in their shoes and grow empathy, but I still want them to own their space. Empathy is key, the further we move away from our teams the harder it is to understand the difficulties they face, and the easier it may become to make detrimental decisions that lead to staff becoming disengaged or burning energy on the wrong activities.


Now this could be seen as anarchy in some people’s eyes, the idea of letting teams make many daily decisions, but here are some ideas to address this.

Align to a problem!

Teams can best use their delegated authority and autonomy to solve problems, so give them a problem. This could be a technical challenge handed down, but not the solution (defeats the point); or it could be the use of OKRs to ensure that energy is expended on solving real growth needs and opportunities to enhance systems that help the business. The benefit is that the problem is more likely to be solved as the team has the ability to find a solution within their power. Telling a team what to build is rarely going to solve the deeper-rooted issues, be it the state of a code base, or infrastructure pains, so ask for an outcome and let the team rally around it.

Agree how to make decisions as a team

This may seem an odd one, but how do your teams make decisions? How do we ensure that team members have an equal say over their work and environment and that a Team Lead or any other team member doesn’t seize control and start being directive?

Having an agreed team charter that sets the rules on how a team commits to a way forward or disagrees and commits is an important tool. Without it there is a lack of certainty about how to proceed, so make sure that teams are agreed on what needs a team decision, and what can be left to the individual. For example, a change to ways of working or a rewrite of complex logic is likely to need buy in as the team are committing to fundamental change, but the finer details are left to the individual fulfilling a task to the best of their abilities.

Autonomy is bounded

Teams can use their newly discovered power to enhance their daily lives and drive results, but it still needs boundaries!

A clear set of the boundaries of where they can and can’t make decisions will help set them up for success. For instance, they can’t step outside of compliance rules, or commit to technology that may need procurement or financial approval.

Allow a team to find its feet

Teams will make mistakes, that’s a fact of life. What is important is that when you allow a team to have the authority to make a decision, that if it is the wrong one you also let them find a way out of the situation. There is a natural reaction to want to take the authority back, but in doing so the team will not learn and grow from the experience. They may look to you to make future decisions or worse still, start playing it safe to the point that output and innovation are sacrificed to avoid repeat embarrassment. So remember to tread softly and be there to help them if they reach out.

Finally, ask yourself…

Why do I want authority?

If you’re honest with yourself, are you focused on getting your own stuff done so that you appear to be doing your job well, rather than thinking more broadly about what your teams need to succeed? Are you guilty of thinking that your way is the only proper way to do something, without allowing teams to try things out and learn for themselves?

Or do you want to gift it in a way that enriches the lives of the teams you work with?

If it’s the latter then come and speak to AO! We want to create the best engineering experience that we can, and to put our teams at the heart of our big initiatives and drive for sustainable innovation and growth.