Project Management Institute

Responsibility, accountability, authority - but what about power?


Joan Knutson

Here's a verbal Rorschach test. As soon as you see the word, think of five words that you associate with that term. Rather than considering your choice for a long time, let the associations come to mind as quickly as possible.

The First Word is “Responsibility”

What words come to your mind? Job, important, purpose, visible, being relied upon, promise—these are some words related to authority for many people. From the thesaurus, words associated with responsibility include burden, commitment, onus, duty, blame, accountability, fault, assignment, obligation, charge, chore, effort, job, mission, task.

The Next Word is “Accountability”

Quickly, what do you think of when you hear the word accountability? Reward/punishment, the buck stops here, responsible, goals to be met. The thesaurus tells us: blame, burden, culpability, guilt, onus, responsibility, shame, stigma.

Notice that responsibility is synonymous with accountability and accountability is synonymous with responsibility. Does that imply that they mean the same thing? That's doubtful. The difference seems to be one of level or degree. Accountability is a stronger word than responsibility and has more significant ramifications. Those ramifications can be in the form of positive rewards or negative punishments. As you can see by the synonyms above, words associated with accountability are more severe in tone than those associated with responsibility. People can be responsible for a lot of things; the degree of import becomes greater when they are held accountable.

We need to look at a third word before we have the full picture.

The Third Word is “Authority”

What do you think of when you see the word authority? Power, or the lack of power, making someone do what I want them to do. Words that the thesaurus associates with this term are expert, master, clout, control, influence, prestige, command, domination, jurisdiction, management, elders, right, prerogative, law, seniority.

If having authority is a way to assure myself that I can successfully meet the responsibilities and accountabilities given to me, then it becomes very important that I understand what authority is. Moreover, it's important to understand the relationship between authority and power.

One of the biggest complaints of most project managers is the lack of authority or power. Many of them use these words interchangeably, as though they meant exactly the same thing. This misunderstanding may prevent project managers from seeing how much power they actually do have, or from acquiring as much of it as possible.

Acquiring Authority and/or Power

In the thesaurus, power is likened to ability, competence, qualification, endowment, potency, control, influence—even greatness and virtue. Compare these synonyms to those the thesaurus selects for authority, and the difference between the two concepts becomes more apparent.

While authority is an externally granted right to command—see the associations with law, government, seniority, etc.—power is something innately derived, a quality rather than a relationship on an organizational chart.

One textbook (Organizational Behavior by Kreitner and Kinicki, 1995) defines authority as the right to seek or demand compliance from others, and power as the demonstrated ability to achieve that compliance. This means that, to some extent, while having authority increases the probability your commands will be obeyed, it doesn't necessarily mean you have the power to influence or motivate people. It becomes a question of the quality of compliance that you get from people.

By the same token, you may have the power to influence and control without having that legitimated right or authority.

To understand further, let's examine and compare the formal and informal sources of authority and power.

Job Title or Position in the Organizational Hierarchy. If one is well placed on the organizational chart, with an impressive title, authority is both implied and, in most cases, written into the job description. Job title or position on the organization chart does not, in and of itself, guarantee authority; but it certainly does position one to command the attention of others. Some specific examples of formal authority are:

Direct line authority. The people on the team report directly to the line manager. She or he may have hired them, may have the authority to fire them, and in all cases determines their raises, promotions, and their future growth within the organization. Most project managers do not have line authority over their project team members. So what other options are there?

Pecuniary authority. “The power of the purse strings” is probably the most effective control that a project manager can have. If the object manager has control over the budget, then the project manager has control over the project. This is particularly true if the project manager has the option to employ internal staff, recruit new staff, or use outside contractors. This may also be accomplished by financial incentives that the project manager is authorized to allocate to the most productive team members.

Mandated authority. A senior executive mandates that everyone will cooperate with the project manager. The delegated power is only as strong as the manager who issued the mandate. It is also only as strong as the consistent backing that this sponsor provides to the project manager. The sponsor may give the greatest kick-off speech in the world, but without continued support this erodes very quickly.

Performance appraisal review authority. The project manager has input into the team member's performance appraisal. This power is only as effective as the degree of influence that this input has upon the team member's raises and promotions.

These types of formal, legitimate authority give the bearer certain types of power: generally, the power to reward or to punish. Ironically, many research studies show that legitimate, reward, and punishment power are the least effective types of power in terms of achieving quality compliance from others.

Informal Authority: The Project Manager's Secret Weapon. Informal authority is almost a contradiction in terms; perhaps “earned authority” is a more accurate term. Because it flows from the qualities of the person rather than from organizational position or job description, it actually comes closest to the definition of power. Key types of earned authority are:

Experience/knowledge authority. Knowing more about a specific subject than anyone else gives the possessor of knowledge or information power that may exceed his or her formal authority. If you seek to use this “expert power” though, keep up to date; it is tenuous, because some new contender can be coming up to take your venerable position.

Authority by association. “Who do you know” power. This lasts only as long as the “who you know” status is intact and the association with this person is perceived as strong.

Personality-based authority. Also called “charisma” or “referent power.” People want to follow this leader. A person with referent power can get things done even if he or she lacks authority. The personality-powered know how to treat others: team members don't forget that time when you were flexible on a deadline or when you made other concessions they needed. Some people call this “calling in markers.” We call it the “Golden Rule of Doing Good Business.” Be a role model and other will look to your leadership.

Credibility authority. This differs from experience, knowledge and technical qualifications. Credibility authority—which might also be called “moral authority”—is gained by the manner in which you conduct yourself: being honest, fair and responsible to the organization, to the team, and to yourself.


Even formal authority is rarely permanent. It must be constantly earned and re-earned. Rather than bemoan the fact you think you don't have the necessary authority, plan to acquire the power you need to achieve your goals. From the options above, choose those that are viable for you. Then go for it. You may have more authority than you think—and more power, too.

Joan Knutson is president and founder of Project Mentors, a San Francisco-based project management consulting and training firm.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • May 1996



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