Authority – Accountability: Get them In Sync

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By Eileen Habelow, Ph.D.

Have you ever been asked to do something that you knew was going to be changed as soon as you finished? Has your team ever spent hours in rigorous debate and great discussion to make a decision that was eventually overturned by someone who had ‘more authority’ than the team?

It’s happened to all of us.  It’s frustrating.  It creates ill will.  It leaves hard working people feeling discouraged, disempowered, and disengaged.  And, that’s not good for any of us – team members, team leaders, and organizations.

As leaders we can avoid this by being clear about the link between “Accountability” and “Authority” and, then be sure the two are in sync whenever we ask someone to own something at work.  First, a few definitions.

Accountability:  When we are to be held accountable for something at work, we expect to get credit when it goes well, and we are willing to take the blame when things don’t go well.  We take responsibility for the outcome.

Authority:  Authority is the power to give orders or make decisions; the power or right to direct or control someone or something.  In other words, we have the right to make a decision, drive a decision, and maximize the resources available to complete the work.

If you allow sufficient authority to complete a task and make a decision for which someone is being held accountable, all is good.  The two are in sync.  But what happens when they are out of sync?  What happens when you don’t allow enough authority?

Not Enough Authority

If you ask someone to take accountability for something, but do not give sufficient authority to carry out the task and make the decision, there will be a problem.  Unfortunately, it happens all the time.  Often it is an unintended consequence.

When you assign a project to an individual or a team, but rather than provide all of your “non-negotiables” and ideas upfront, you continuously ‘pop-in’ to the process, insert your opinions, change their direction, and generally disrupt the flow of their work, you are usurping the authority necessary for the performer(s) to feel truly accountable for the work.  You may think you are coaching.  The individual or the team will feel like you don’t trust them to complete the work.

What if you allow the team or individual to work with autonomy, to make a decision, but when it comes time to review the decision with you, you overturn.  You ask them to start over.  That may be worse.  Both are examples of a lack of authority, perceived or real, that will frustrate everyone involved.

Think carefully as you assign work or accountabilities to individuals and teams.  Make sure you are giving them enough authority to be successful.  And, double-check that the performer agrees with you – that they have what they need to be successful.

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