Power or authority in a professional environment?

Power and authority in a professional environment: an interesting but confronting conversation with Anneke 

Anneke Hunninck, who graduated as a mechanical engineer at the VUB, is currently working at her alma mater where she is responsible for Business Development.

The past 24 years, Anneke experienced many different challenges, mainly in multinational companies in the technical services sector. She set up, restructured and managed sales teams, operational teams, technical departments and supporting services. During her MBA period Anneke experienced working in several far-flung teams and was immersed in different cultures. Her main values: Integrity and passion. (source Linkedin account)

TIP-IM: Anneke, according to you, what is the difference between power and authority? 

In my opinion, power and authority are two very different things. For me, authority is also a question of charisma and ‘captivation’. Authority is necessary in a managerial position if you want to draw people into the story of an organization. But … this must not result in power, let alone abuse of power.

TIP-IM: Are these words culturally tinted?


Based on my own experience, which is largely gained at multinationals, I noticed that authority often comes along with it a certain hierarchy. That is necessary for a company to run smoothly.

In Belgium, this type of a hierarchical model is part of our culture. It is certainly worth taking a closer look in to the work of the late Professor of Social Psychology Geert Hofstede on cultural differences between countries, and the six dimensions he described.

One of them is "power distance". In Belgium, people accept a greater power distance than in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands for example everyone participates in decision-making right down to the work floor.

Belgians have not yet experienced this evolution and may never do so.

Therefore, it is important to continue considering the specific culture given to a country. This is often a pitfall within multinationals. A multinational could cut a layer of middle managers as part of a restructuring, without taking the cultural business habits of the country sufficiently into account.

Power, authority and hierarchy are undoubtedly also cultural concepts.

TIP-IM: Do power and domination go hand in hand? 


Some people need someone to lead them and tell them what to do. They have no problem with their work being controlled, as long as the intentions are good. Or as long as it is not a reason for the employer or superior to exercise their power. It is fundamental to treat people correctly, with respect for their differences. In all kinds of ways.


TIP-IM: Do gender differences in companies still affect the power balance of today?

My own experience over the past 10 years has been in very "masculine" environments, often in technical sectors. There it remains quite exceptional for a woman to have a leadership role. I had hoped that there would have been an evolution, but there definitely is not. Furthermore, there are still companies where the boss decides everything on his own, behind the scenes.

I have experienced this too many times and it has been the straw that broke the camel's back when I decided to become self-employed. Link this to our masculine culture that does not always seem to be ready to give other aspects, such as well-being at work, the place it deserves. I have also experienced unwanted behavior myself. From verbal to even physical aggression. There is still too often turned a blind eye upon this. For all kinds of wrong reasons …

This is not only morally reprehensible; in the end it is counterproductive. After all, I believe that companies managed by charisma and no abuse of power, and are able to instill a sense of commitment in their employees, achieve better financial results.

TIP-IM: Are we adequately trained to become potential leaders?

You are hitting a nerve here. People need to be trained to be good leaders. This training is lacking today. Moreover, you see more and more young people in higher positions. By doing this companies are trying to cut costs.

But these young profiles do not yet understand the business world thoroughly enough to lead (other managers or C-profiles). There’s a difference with being in charge of operational executives. This higher type of management requires different capabilities. Which you can only gain by having sufficient experience.

I did an MBA at the Rotterdam University from 2015 to 2017. As part of an international program, we, being 24 nationalities, were given a separate module Personal Leadership Development". Until today, this course is still very exceptional that’s such a pity. These types of courses really prove their worth. It was disconcerting to hear how people, for example, misjudged certain forms of undesirable behavior up until then. They learned a lot from this and undoubtedly became better leaders afterwards.

TIP-IM: Speaking of experience, does a leader also have to have encountered failures to be a good leader?

Absolutely. It is necessary to run into a wall sometimes in order to learn from it.

TIP-IM: Training and experience are therefore still decisive. How do you see this in the context of the project economy, with higher profiles increasingly being deployed as independent interim managers for defined periods of time?

I think these people can make a big difference in companies, because Interim Managers can point out certain things better, because the hierarchal structure does not apply to them. It provides them with more freedom of expression. That external view is always beneficial to the company in the long run.

TIP-IM – A final question: can one learn a lot after 24 years of experience in a workplace?

Definitely. In my current job at the VUB, I deal with very exciting subjects, in a fantastic working environment that is very different. From the research point of view, people are really willing to listen and work open-minded. People also dare to question themselves more, and that is a real leadership quality. In this environment, I have been fortunate to meet very inspiring leaders.


Join us on LinkedIn.

Are you ready to make the most of your skills?
Is it time for a new challenge?