Most line workers receive work instructions that are passed down through a chain of command from top management to the line organization. However, the best advice and instructions can sometimes be obtained through the lens of staff authority, which is when staff managers have functional authority to assist line operations through suggestions and shared insight.
What Is Staff Authority?
Staff authority is an organizational principle that gives people in staff positions authority over line workers’ management and decision-making.
Staff Positions vs. Line Positions
To gain a better understanding of staff authority, first distinguish between a staff position and a line position:
Line positions are concerned with the company’s core offerings. Most businesses have line organizations that create the products and services that are sold to customers. Line workers in a company can include supervisors such as production managers, as well as regular employees. The line organization in a car company would be the groups in charge of building and selling the cars.
Staff positions support line organizations. A typical staff role does not directly produce the service or product sold to customers. Instead, they assist the organization by providing ancillary services such as legal services or office management. Staff functions contribute to overall organizational goals even though staff specialists are not on a production line (or supervise line workers). A staff specialist in a car company, for example, could be a human resource manager or a general counsel.
When a staff member provides advice or direction to the line department, this is referred to as exercising staff authority. This disrupts the traditional authority structure, in which line workers report to project management supervisors, but staff perspectives may add value to the line organization.
How Does Staff Authority Work?
The line organizational structure in large corporations and certain small businesses involves a chain of command that begins with corporate executives and flows down through line managers overseeing line functions. At the same time, these companies may have a staff organizational structure that does not directly involve the core product of the company but still serves broad organizational goals.
Staff authority refers to the dynamic that occurs when the line-staff boundary is breached and staff members provide insight to line workers or line managers. Consider the general counsel of a company providing strategy advice to the sales manager. Such interactions take place outside of a company’s normal chain of command, but they expose employees to new perspectives that can only emerge when employees connect across department boundaries.
Line Authority vs. Staff Authority
Most large corporations have line positions with line authority. They may also have staff positions where they can provide advice to front-line workers, which qualifies as staff authority.
The normal chain of command on a company’s core product line is represented by line authority. Line authority refers to the process of product managers instructing line workers or top management instructing product managers. Line authority entails the concentration of power, the establishment of a clear chain of command, and work directly related to the company’s customer-facing products or services.
Staff authority entails staff positions providing advice and insight to line positions. Line workers have no formal authority over staff workers. A company’s in-house accountant, for example, cannot tell a marketing manager how to do their job. However, these employees can assist line managers and workers by providing insight and advice. They exercise staff authority in doing so.