The Limits of Authority: Motivation Versus Coordination

25 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2006

See all articles by Eric Van den Steen

Eric Van den Steen

Harvard Business School - Strategy Unit

Date Written: August 2006


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.

Keywords: delegation, motivation, coordination, authority, differing priors, heterogeneous priors

JEL Classification: D8, L2, M5

Suggested Citation

van den Steen, Eric, The Limits of Authority: Motivation Versus Coordination (August 2006). MIT Sloan Research Paper No. 4626-06, Available at SSRN: or

Eric Van den Steen (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School - Strategy Unit ( email )

Harvard Business School
Soldiers Field Road
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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