IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

The Limits of Authority: Motivation versus Coordination


  • Van den Steen, Eric


This paper studies the effects of open disagreement on motivation and coordination. It shows how - in the presence of differing priors - motivation and coordination impose conflicting demands on the allocation of authority, leading to a trade-off between the two. The paper first derives a new mechanism for delegation: since the agent thinks - by revealed preference applied to differing priors - that his own decisions are better than those of the principal, delegation will motivate him to exert more effort when effort and correct decisions are complements. A need for implementation effort will thus lead to more decentralization. The opposite holds for substitutes. Delegation, however, reduces coordination when people disagree on the right course of action. The paper shows that - with differing priors - the firm needs to rely more on authority (as opposed to incentives) to solve coordination problems, relative to the case with private benefits. An interesting side-result here is that the principal will actively enforce her decisions only at intermediate levels of the need for coordination. The combination of the two main results implies a trade-off between motivation and coordination, both on a firm level and across firms. I derive the motivation-coordination possibility frontier and show the equilibrium distribution of effort versus coordination. I finally argue that strong culture, in the sense of homogeneity, is one (costly) way to relax the trade-off.

Suggested Citation

  • Van den Steen, Eric, 2007. "The Limits of Authority: Motivation versus Coordination," Working papers 37305, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
  • Handle: RePEc:mit:sloanp:37305

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Muhamet Yildiz, 2003. "Bargaining without a Common Prior-An Immediate Agreement Theorem," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 71(3), pages 793-811, May.
    2. Aghion, Philippe & Tirole, Jean, 1997. "Formal and Real Authority in Organizations," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 105(1), pages 1-29, February.
    3. Arnoud W. A. Boot & Radhakrishnan Gopalan & Anjan V. Thakor, 2006. "The Entrepreneur's Choice between Private and Public Ownership," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 61(2), pages 803-836, April.
    4. Friebel, Guido & Raith, Michael, 2006. "Resource Allocation and Firm Scope," IZA Discussion Papers 2249, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    5. Susan Athey & John Roberts, 2001. "Organizational Design: Decision Rights and Incentive Contracts," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(2), pages 200-205, May.
    6. Augustin Landier & David Sraer & David Thesmar, 2009. "Optimal Dissent in Organizations," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 76(2), pages 761-794.
    7. Baker, George & Gibbons, Robert & Murphy, Kevin J, 1999. "Informal Authority in Organizations," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 15(1), pages 56-73, April.
    8. Morris, Stephen, 1994. "Trade with Heterogeneous Prior Beliefs and Asymmetric Information," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 62(6), pages 1327-1347, November.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Ján Zábojník, 2010. "Disobedience and Authority," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 26(3), pages 427-459.
    2. Di Maggio, Marco, 2009. "Sweet Talk: A Theory of Persuasion," MPRA Paper 18697, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    3. Eric Van den Steen, 2009. "Authority versus Persuasion," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(2), pages 448-453, May.
    4. Gary Charness & Ramón Cobo-Reyes & Juan A. Lacomba & Francisco Lagos & Jose Maria Perez, 2016. "Social comparisons in wage delegation: experimental evidence," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 19(2), pages 433-459, June.
    5. Wouter Dessein & Luis Garicano & Robert Gertner, 2010. "Organizing for Synergies," American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 2(4), pages 77-114, November.

    More about this item


    delegation; motivation; coordination; authority; differing priors; heterogeneous priors;

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    This item is featured on the following reading lists or Wikipedia pages:
    1. Industrial Sociology (FCT-UNL)


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:mit:sloanp:37305. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Christian Zimmermann). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.