Don is a fairly new senior editor in a department that abstracts and indexes legal publications. He is responsible for creating and clarifying editorial policy for the staff. It's an enviable position, yet Don's authority is not complete. He wants to create new guidelines that would significantly affect how the indexers apply index terms to articles, but these terms fall under the responsibility of Sue. Sue is the senior editor in charge of the vocabulary, and she has been in her position much longer than Don.
Don is not opportunistic or controlling. All Don wants is to create policies that raise the standard for editorial quality in the department. That would mean eliminating obsolete index terms and creating new ones. It might also mean that Don has to bend his line.
When you lack direct authority but want to create change, you may need to alter whatever authority you do have. The steps in this process are to determine your current level of authority and the level of authority you need, then determine how strong the existing obstacles are.
Determine your current level of authority
First, you have to find out how much authority you do have by consulting your job description or talking to your boss. As a senior editor, Don is expected to recognize what needs to be done, and do it. Unfortunately, that doesn't give Don a blank check.
The job description for "senior editor" in the company's employee handbook is rigid and limited. It describes the three chief tasks a senior editor performs and to whom the senior editor reports. Words such as "influence" or "authority" are nowhere to be found.
All Don's boss would say on the matter was, "Clarify the language." In fact, Don thinks his boss is just too laid-back to think about the matter at any length. Then again, when anyone does step over the line, the boss is quick to administer a rebuke.
In practice, Don has noticed that his authority is not static. Depending upon whom he is dealing with and in what capacity, his authority seems to ebb and flow. So far, this elasticity has not been questioned. Then again, he's never really dealt with Sue.
Don decides his current authority is a mixed bag. His job description doesn't limit his authority, but neither does it encourage expansion. Don's boss obviously trusts Don to proceed as he sees fit, but Don has never tested this freedom, and he knows his boss can be strict. Finally, in practice, Don's co-workers seem to accept whatever actions he takes, but Don has largely stayed within his domain. At this point, Don feels he has significant authority but that he must exercise it with caution.
Determine the level of authority you need
The second step in altering your authority is determining how much authority you need. This is important because the difference between what you have and what you need are the gaps you must fill. Don already knows what his objective is: to overhaul the department's legal index vocabulary so that users can more easily find articles. As the senior editor in charge of editorial policy, he has some influence in this area. The question is, how much?
One thing he needs is authority over a small team of researchers. This team would review the 80 legal publications we now index and create a database of terms and definitions we lack in our vocabulary.
He would also like a significant say over which new terms the team incorporates. His role in this is important because the terms must complement the editorial policies regarding style and usage, which is his area of expertise.
Although Don's responsibilities overlap many areas in the department's hierarchy, he has never needed to venture so far into Sue's territory. It is becoming clear to Don just how careful he will need to be if he continues to pursue this change he desires.
Determine how strong the obstacles are
Now that Don has determined the approximate authority he has and how much he needs, his final consideration before he decides how or if he will alter his authority is to consider how strong the obstacles to change are.
This is the final step he needs to take. As you've seen, Don has significant authority in some ways, but not enough to always do as he pleases. It should go without saying that if the obstacles facing Don look insurmountable, he may want to abort his project.
Don approaches his boss and Sue, and learns the following:
Don's boss – "It doesn't matter to me what Don does as long as he gets the job done and doesn't make waves. Don is a good worker; I trust his judgment."
Sue – I don't exactly like people messing in my area, especially if the change is as significant as Don described. He has an excellent idea, but I'm the one who should direct that one since the vocabulary is my responsibility.
Don's co-workers – "There shouldn't be a great deal of overlap when it comes to Sue's and my responsibilities."
It's a good thing Don considered his obstacles before jumping headlong into his project. Although Don's boss sanctioned his plan, neither Sue nor his co-workers would take lightly a blatant move into Sue's territory, not even by Don. Nevertheless, Don is in an excellent position to do just that. In fact, he has many options, not the least of which is to work directly with Sue to implement his change. Since Sue approves of Don's plan in general, this shouldn't be a problem.
Altering your authority in the business world requires ambition and grace. You need to pursue your desires, but you need to do so in a way that is acceptable. When it comes to altering your authority, it is important to consider all three steps in the process. You must determine how much authority you have, how much you need, and how strong the obstacles are to the change you wish to make.