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Acceptance Theory of Authority – Definition

Acceptance Theory of Authority Definition 

The acceptance theory of authority states that a manager’s authority over his/her subordinates depends on the willingness of the subordinates to accept his/her right to give orders, and comply with them. While the acceptance theory essentially follows the traditional top-down management approach, it also embraces a much more contemporary philosophy of management that acknowledges the need to provide subordinates with a clear definition of company policies and initiatives. As such, this theory seeks to foster compliance that is not blind, while encouraging subordinates to ask questions.

A Little More on Acceptance Theory of Authority

There are four theories of authority –

  • Formal or Classical Theory of Authority
  • Acceptance Theory of Authority
  • Authority Theory of the Situation
  • Competence Theory of Authority

The acceptance theory of authority was originally conceived by Mary Parker Follett, but was popularized later by Chester Barnard (1886-1961) through his 1938 book, The Functions of the Executive. This theory of authority emphasizes on the managers’ role in maintaining rapport with their subordinates in order to facilitate smooth communication and enlist the support of subordinates towards management decisions. Also known as bottom-up authority, the acceptance theory suggests that authority actually flows from bottom to top and not the other way around. In this regard, the flow of authority is more comparable to a request by top-level management, which, when accepted by subordinates, results in the actual exercise of authority by the managers. Conversely, a rejection of such a request by subordinates means that managers are unable to exercise authority.

The highlight of the acceptance theory of authority is that it acknowledges informal relationships within the organisation and thus, provides a much more practical understanding (compared to the classical theory) of how “formal” authority actually works in an organization. Barnard further formulates the concept of the zone of indifference, which states that although employees may initially accept the authority of managers in return for monetary compensation, such an acceptance of authority is not comprehensive, i.e. employees only tend to accept authority within the range of acceptance. The following are the limits drawn by individual employees within which they either accept or reject management authority:

  • Actions that are generally deemed unacceptable by subordinates and hence, not carried out by them.
  • Borderline actions that can be comprehended as both acceptable or unacceptable by subordinates.
  • Actions that are generally deemed acceptable by subordinates since they lie within the zone of indifference. Such actions carried out by subordinates.

Chester Barnard lists four conditions, the satisfaction of which usually results in an acceptance of authority. These are:

  • The subordinate is able to fully interpret the communication.
  • The subordinate believes that the communication is consistent with the objectives of the organisation.
  • The subordinate believes that the communication is consistent his/her personal objectives.
  • The subordinate is physically and mentally capable of accepting the communication.

Chester Barnard’s Guidelines for a Manager w.r.t. Acceptance of Authority

According to Barnard, there are several guidelines which a manager must follow in order to ensure that his/her authority is accepted. These are

  • First, the manager needs to utilize a formal channel of communication since it is familiar to all members of the organization.
  • Secondly, the manager needs to assign a formal communication channel to each individual member of the organization in order to communicate orders.
  • Thirdly, it is in the best interest of the business to maintain as direct a line of communication between manager and subordinate as possible.
  • Orders need to be issued using the complete chain of command.
  • Managers need to possess communication skills that are at the least, adequate.
  • It is mandatory for the manager to use formal communication lines for organisational business only.
  • Lastly, for a command to be accepted, it must always be authenticated as coming from the manager.

In Summary

It is imperative for a manager to understand that different individuals have different zones of indifference – a command that is deemed acceptable by an individual employee may be rejected by another. Nevertheless, an employee that has joined at the lower level usually has a very small zone of indifference, since he/she is persuaded to accept most of the commands coming from the manager. However, as the employee grows in the organization, his/her zone of indifference also widens. As the employee reaches the higher (management) levels, his/her responsibilities typically lie with the formulation of policies, rather than their implementation. The zone of indifference for such an employee is usually the widest.

References for Acceptance Theory of Authority


Academic Research

  • A formal theory of the employment relationship, Simon, H. A. (1951). A formal theory of the employment relationship. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society, 293-305.
  • Toward a behavioral theory of charismatic leadership in organizational settings, Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1987). Toward a behavioral theory of charismatic leadership in organizational settings. Academy of management review, 12(4), 637-647. Charismatic leadership has been largely overlooked by organizational theorists. In part, the problem can be attributed to the lack of a systematic conceptual framework Drawing from political science, sociology, and social psychology, this paper addresses the problem by proposing a model linking organizational contexts to charismatic leadership. A series of research hypotheses is offered.
  • Accountability and authority: toward a theory of political accountability, Ferejohn, J. (1999). Accountability and authority: toward a theory of political accountability. Democracy, accountability, and representation, 131, 133.
  • Parental acceptance‐rejection: Theory, methods, cross‐cultural evidence, and implications, Rohner, R. P., Khaleque, A., & Cournoyer, D. E. (2005). Parental acceptancerejection: Theory, methods, crosscultural evidence, and implications. Ethos, 33(3), 299-334. This article summarizes concepts, methods, cross‐cultural evidence, and implications of parental acceptance‐rejection theory (PARTheory). The theory focuses primarily on parental love—its expressions, impact, and origins. Nearly 2,000 studies in the United States and cross‐culturally confirm the widely held belief that children everywhere need acceptance (love) from parents and other attachment figures. Evidence has shown that when this need is not met, children worldwide—regardless of variations in culture, gender, age, or ethnicity—tend to self‐report a specific form of psychological maladjustment. Additionally, individuals who perceive themselves to be rejected appear to be more disposed than accepted persons to develop behavior problems, depression or depressed affect, substance abuse, and other mental health‐related issues. Finally, children and adults appear universally to organize their perceptions of acceptance‐rejection around the same four classes of behavior. These include warmth/affection (or coldness/lack of affection), hostility/aggression, indifference/neglect, and undifferentiated rejection.
  • Bad management theories are destroying good management practices, Ghoshal, S. (2005). Bad management theories are destroying good management practices. Academy of Management learning & education, 4(1), 75-91. This article argues that academic research related to the conduct of business and management has had some very significant and negative influences on the practice of management. These influences have been less at the level of adoption of a particular theory and more at the incorporation, within the worldview of managers, of a set of ideas and assumptions that have come to dominate much of management research. More specifically, this article suggests that by propagating ideologically inspired amoral theories, business schools have actively freed their students from any sense of moral responsibility. As has been extensively documented in the literature over the last 50 years business school research has increasingly adopted the scientific model–an approach that Friedrich A. Von Hayek described as the pretense of knowledge. This pretense has demanded theorizing based on partialization of analysis, the exclusion of any role for human intentionality or choice, and the use of sharp assumptions and deductive reasoning. Since morality, or ethics, is inseparable from human intentionality, a precondition for making business studies a science has been the denial of any moral or ethical considerations in our theories and, therefore, in our prescriptions for management practice.
  • Social identity theory and the organization, Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of management review, 14(1), 20-39. It is argued that (a) social identification is a perception of oneness with a group of persons; (b) social identification stems from the categorization of individuals, the distinctiveness and prestige of the group, the salience of outgroups, and the factors that traditionally are associated with group formation; and (c) social identification leads to activities that are congruent with the identity, support for institutions that embody the identity, stereotypical perceptions of self and others, and outcomes that traditionally are associated with group formation, and it reinforces the antecedents of identification. This perspective is applied to organizational socialization, role conflict, and intergroup relations.
  • Public management information systems: Theory and prescription, Bozeman, B., & Bretschneider, S. (1986). Public management information systems: Theory and prescription. Public administration review, 475-487. The existing theoretical framework for research in Management Information Systems (MIS) is criticized for its lack of attention to the external environment of organizations, and a new framework is developed which better accommodates MIS in public organizations: Public Management Information Systems (PMIS). Four models of publicness which reflect external organizational environments are integrated into a single model. The basic model of publicness is then used to develop a series of propositions/prescriptions which differentiate management of information systems between public and private organizations. Real examples are used to illustrate these propositions.
  • Stewardship theory or agency theory: CEO governance and shareholder returns, Donaldson, L., & Davis, J. H. (1991). Stewardship theory or agency theory: CEO governance and shareholder returns. Australian Journal of management, 16(1), 49-64. Agency theory argues that shareholder interests require protection by separation of incumbency of rôles of board chair and CEO. Stewardship theory argues shareholder interests are maximised by shared incumbency of these rôles. Results of an empirical test fail to support agency theory and provide some support for stewardship theory.
  • The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory, Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer, New York, NY. Throughout the past few thousand years, historical accounts, philosophical treatises, and works of fiction and poetry have often depicted humans as having a need to perceive themselves as good, and their actions as moral and justified. Within the last hundred years, a number of important figures in the development of modern psychology have also embraced this notion that people need self-esteem (e.g., Adler, 1930; Allport, 1937; Homey, 1937; James, 1890; Maslow, 1970; Murphy, 1947; Rank, 1959; Rogers, 1959; Sullivan, 1953). Of these, Karen Homey most thoroughly discussed the ways people try to attain and maintain a favorable self-image. The clinical writings of Horney, and other psychotherapists as well, document the ways in which people attempt to defend and enhance self-esteem; they also suggest that difficulty maintaining self-esteem, and maladaptive efforts to do so, may be central to a variety of mental health problems. In this chapter, we will first review the research supporting the existence of a need for self-esteem. Then we will present a theory that accounts for this need and specifies the role it plays in a variety of phenomena including self-presentation.
  • The impact of leadership and change management strategy on organizational culture and individual acceptance of change during a merger, Kavanagh, M. H., & Ashkanasy, N. M. (2006). The impact of leadership and change management strategy on organizational culture and individual acceptance of change during a merger. British Journal of Management, 17(S1), S81-S103. This article reports a longitudinal study that examined mergers between three large multi‐site public‐sector organizations. Both qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis are used to examine the effect of leadership and change management strategies on acceptance of cultural change by individuals. Findings indicate that in many cases the change that occurs as a result of a merger is imposed on the leaders themselves, and it is often the pace of change that inhibits the successful re‐engineering of the culture. In this respect, the success or otherwise of any merger hinges on individual perceptions about the manner in which the process is handled and the direction in which the culture is moved. Communication and a transparent change process are important, as this will often determine not only how a leader will be regarded, but who will be regarded as a leader. Leaders need to be competent and trained in the process of transforming organizations to ensure that individuals within the organization accept the changes prompted by a merger.
  • Formal and real authority in organizations, Aghion, P., & Tirole, J. (1997). Formal and real authority in organizations. Journal of political economy, 105(1), 1-29. This paper develops a theory of the allocation of formal authority (the right to decide) and real authority (the effective control over decisions) within organizations, and it illustrates how a formally integrated structure can accommodate various degrees of “real” integration. Real authority is determined by the structure of information, which in turn depends on the allocation of formal authority. An increase in an agent’s real authority promotes initiative but results in a loss of control for the principal. After spelling out (some of) the main determinants of the delegation of formal authority within organizations, the paper examines a number of factors that increase the subordinates’ real authority in a formally integrated structure: overload, lenient rules, urgency of decision, reputation, performance measurement, and multiplicity of superiors. Finally, the amount of communication in an organization is shown to depend on the allocation of formal authority.
  • Theory of change and the effective use of management science, Zand, D. E., & Sorensen, R. E. (1975). Theory of change and the effective use of management science. Administrative Science Quarterly, 532-545.

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