Ways to take action

"Internal authority models": how do they influence our professional relationships?

Sylvie Deffayet Davrout , Professor, Leadership Development Chair Director

In this article, originally published in Harvard Business Review France, Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, Professor at EDHEC and Director of the Leadership Development Chair, examines the mechanisms that lead individuals to accept (or not) the authority - i.e. leadership - exercised over them.

Reading time :
2 Feb 2024

As a follower, what are the mechanisms that make us recognise the authority of others, and how can this inform our own leadership?


We have seen that 'followership studies' are interested in the reasons why we follow leaders. Among these reasons is our very personal way of allowing others to exercise their power or authority over us, based on subjective motives that are our "internal models of authority" ("Authority at Work : Internal Models and Their Organizational Consequences", by William A. Kahn and Kathy E. Kram, The Academy of Management Review, 1994).


This approach comes from attachment theory, applied to the managerial world by William A. Kahn and Kathy E. Kram in 1994. It is based on the idea that we experience our authority relationships from deep personal dimensions, often unconscious, stemming from the way in which we experienced our first authority relationships.


As a result, we approach the organisational world with a set of reference points that are already firmly established, making us approach authority and those who embody it :

  • either as a source of security, development and autonomy, as in the 'interdependent' model ;
  • or as a source of anxiety or insecurity, with two models here, the dependent or the counter-dependent.


How do these famous internal authority models work?

As is often the case in leadership, it's a question of beliefs. Each of the 3 internal models combines two of them:

  1. My self-image;
  2. My representation of the relationship; what I expect the other person to do in response.

Let's start by describing people insecure about authority using the dependent and counter-dependent models.


Followers and dependent leaders

Addicts tend to idealise authority. With what is known as "ambivalent anxious attachment", they are never sure that others will be available, that they will respond and be helpful. To reassure themselves, they tend to cling to the leader, demanding close proximity, which can sometimes lead to the rejection they fear.


Conflict is also unthinkable for them: "I'm not someone who seeks conflict, so I respect authority even if I have a negative feeling about the person, about what they tell me; if they have a 'title' or a status higher than mine, I either comply or keep quiet, depending on the case".


In short, an employee who is in a position of dependence immediately gives credit to the person in authority...


To read this article in full in French, rendez-vous directement sur hbrfrance.fr


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