Are you and your team always crystal clear about the difference between accountability, responsibility and authority? Who or what’s holding you accountable?
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The purpose of this article is to help position accountability, responsibility and authority for the benefit of those going through the sometimes painful and hopefully liberating experience of delegation for the first time in their transition from being a “specialist” to being a “manager or leader”. It is an equally important reminder of the obligation of those of us already in leadership positions to teach and coach these skills to those new to the art of delegation.
Accountability in Business
As a sole proprietor of a business, one is accountable for all and every aspect of that business including legally, for its taxes, its public responsibilities etc. He or she is accountable for each and every outcome as per the famous Harry Truman term: “the buck stops here”.
In an organisation, where various roles and responsibilities have been delegated to certain individuals with the necessary authority to carry out that responsibility, the “owners or elected or designated executive managers” nonetheless remain accountable for its operations, its formal legal and tax obligations, its corporate citizenship etc and its outcomes.
Accountability includes the word “account” which suggests correct and accurate record keeping to be able to substantiate an outcome as well as the steps and means by which it was achieved.
We are heading into another Federal election in Australia where a government will be (re)granted the legal authority in terms of our constitution to govern the country – to be held accountable for those outcomes expected for the well being of all our citizens.
In that vein I have often wondered about the legal (and moral) accountability of very large multinational (particularly mining) organizations whose operations span multiple countries in most parts of the world. Legal systems (including anti competition laws) are usually restricted to within the sovereign boundaries according to the law of each country. While certain countries might take that responsibility seriously, who controls or determines whether a merger between such two organizations (each of whose size is in itself the size of the economies of many countries) is good for “our greater good”?
Accountability, Responsibility and Authority
In my work coaching technical specialists through the transition into operational management and leadership we obviously have to introduce delegation which includes ”letting go” of being the sole carrier or “go to person” for their specific skill. They need to learn the difference between accountability, responsibility authority.
That means that when (let’s say) John, the experienced specialist, delegates the responsibility of certain tasks or operations to Jack (someone still learning these new skills), he needs to also outline the degree of authority Jack is granted with that responsibility.
Jack needs that to be able to make independent decisions in order to be able to carry the tasks out productively and within the defined risk parameters. It tells him what he can decide himself and where he needs to go back to John for a decision.
John needs to learn “how much rope” he is willing to grant Jack. Given too much, Jack could too easily make costly mistakes and given too little, Jack could be frustrated by all the constraints.
However, the “buck stops with John”. If Jack screws up, John is still accountable. This is where we always seem to get into trouble with the give and take of this process. John has to understand that while Jack has now been made responsible, he (John) still retains overall accountability for the outcomes from those tasks. Unfortunately that fact often acts as an impediment instead of an incentive for John to practice delegation. “It will take Jack so long to learn this, I might as well do it myself – it is much quicker and safer that way”. Sound familiar?
Where my focus on personal accountability comes in however, is that Jack is accountable to John to do his best to doing justice in carrying out the new tasks. This is a great learning opportunity for Jack and provided he is willing to grow, will enrich his role and contribution and broaden his responsibilities, often resulting in better visibility, respect, and pay.
For John, whilst appearing quite risky (and even scary) to start with, delegation frees him up to focus more attention to other growth tasks in his job. Making him available for “bigger and better things”. Learning these new delegation skills and gaining experience in achieving results through others usually being the key aspect of that.
The bottom line here is that there can be little or no growth for the individuals involved if we don’t go through this perceived hurdle. Every leader has had to go through that. Ironically the faster and the better we get good at it, the faster we grow as leaders. And as we grow through the corporate ranks, we rely less and less on our “specialist skills” for our success and more and more on our “generalist and leadership skills”.
The clearer the “rules” or “terms” of the delegation are made for Jack, the better Jack is able to “learn and play the game”, and over time, as he gets better at it, John can give him “more and more rope”, until eventually Jack may have full responsibility for that aspect of John’s job. Where coaching becomes important in this process is for John to understand that delegation isn’t weakening his position, but rather strengthening it, if he (and his managers) have confidence in his ability to grow.
However, if those “rules” are unclear towards Jack, things can be misinterpreted, mistakes can be made, frustration can set in and blame and excuses can prevail.
This is one of the most natural workplace transitions we can get. Provided there is expansion and growth, we will always need to expand what the workforce is doing, either by employing or contracting new people or by developing those around us to work smarter. The need for accountability, responsibility and authority is just as relevant and will always encounter initial stumbles.
For those of you reading this that are already in senior leadership roles, please remind yourself of how you experienced this phenomenon for the first time you were delegated something and then the first time you yourself had to experience delegating “what you had become good at” to others. In doing so I ask you to help me encourage those going through either scenario for the first time.
For those of you facing the introduction to delegation (either giving or receiving) I encourage you to remind yourself of the need for personal accountability in either and both.
Accountability also implies holding an obligation towards achieving the outcome, whether accountable for that outcome to someone else or to oneself.
This is part of the question of: Cause and Effect where we talk about living and working “at cause” and taking responsibility for yourself and your actions and outcomes versus being “at effect” of what you allow to happen to you.
I like the cliché “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me”. I see that from two perspectives:
- from that of the delegator, by choosing to want to learn how to delegate and “coach” the one being delegated to
- from that of the one being delegated to, to take on the responsibility and to want to learn to make it work successfully
My experience in how best to make both work? Exercising a choice of either seeing this:
- as a threat (it’s possible, but it’s too difficult)
- or seeing this as an opportunity (it may be difficult, but it’s possible).
Successful specialists and professionals wanting to become successful leaders will know which choice to make. What if you were one of those and what if you could?