This lesson can be a tough one to pinpoint and learn. Basically, whenever you have been given, or have taken, responsibility without having the authority to make the necessary decisions and execute the strategy to reach the agreed upon outcome, things can go quite poorly. Remove accountability from the mix and well, the outcomes are just plain ugly.
I had a client, once, that was appointed to be the lead on a major project at the organization where he worked. He was given, and accepted, the responsibility for leading the team that would design and execute the strategy over the next year. He needed to make tough decisions and execute team member modifications that he thought would create the best chances for success. Unfortunately, each time he tried to execute a decision he was told he did not have the authority to make that particular decision. He grew frustrated and eventually angry at those he was reporting to. He knew he would be held responsible if the project was unsuccessful, yet he felt that he was given no authority to make the changes he thought would be necessary to reach the agreed upon outcome.
Maybe you can think of a time when you were given authority over something yet were not held accountable for the results that you or your team got.
To avoid this type of situation it’s important that the following steps occur when onboarding a new allocation of responsibility and/or position in a professional or even a personal situation.
- All parties must agree on a mutually beneficial desired outcome. What’s the win-win-win? You need to decide what the win for all parties will be. Each party must be motivated towards that outcome, understand and agree on why you want that outcome, and the consequences on what will occur if that outcome does not happen.
- Assign roles and responsibilities. Each party needs to be extremely clear on what their roles will be and what they will be held responsible for. This may take several conversations to create and establish a mutual understanding. The big misstep usually comes when Step One or Two is assumed by each of the parties involved. You assume since you’ve had a certain role before that you are going to be held responsible for certain things. The other party has had an entirely different set of experiences when it comes to that role so they are assigning responsibility, in their mind’s eye, based on that set of criteria. If these matters are not discussed, thoroughly, breakdowns and frustrations will mount.
- Assign and then COMMUNICATE the authority each person has been given for what they have agreed to be responsible for. How many times have you had a meeting where you were assigned a role, been given responsibility for a task, project, or new position, and then the authority you will need was not outlined clearly to you and not a word was said to anyone else? What ends up happening is that you think you have the authority to set deadlines, call meetings, require certain people to do certain things and they don’t follow your lead AT ALL. They were never communicated with about what authority you had been given and BAM! it happens. You are sitting there at 10p one night, doing everyone else’s “job” and you want to scream. You feel responsible for the outcome but realize you were not given the authority to make it happen. What can sometimes be just as damaging to a team is when a leader oversteps his/her authority, on a regular basis, and team members have no plausible recourse for addressing it. Although most companies feel like they have a Human Resource department that the team member can go to, or that the CEO’s door is “always open” the reality of the situation is that the team member may feel that the daily ramification of “speaking up” is far greater than the reward for having done so.
- Create a system of accountability. Don’t think that everyone is an adult and professional and everyone will do what they promised and committed to doing. As the old saying in business goes, “you can’t expect what you don’t inspect”.
Create a system that each person agrees to and makes a commitment to follow. Discuss and agree on consequences when commitments are broken. What happens when you miss a deadline? What happens when you miss revenue projections? What are the consequences when all the pieces for a project are not together the night before it is due or the day before payroll is to be posted? Accountability plays a crucial part in reaching agreed upon outcomes. Without it, each team member is left thinking it was “someone else’s fault” that something didn’t happen as planned. And then the drama begins!
I have witnessed some of my best and brightest clients experience great loss, shame, embarrassment, and heartache because they jumped into a position, took full responsibility (as they saw it) for the outcome, but did not discuss the boundaries of the authority they had to execute the agreed upon strategy. At times, they attempted to overstep the authority they were given and that didn’t work out well, either. Other times, they had a strategy that they did not clearly communicate, or inspire others to follow, with the outcome being that they tried to execute all the steps by themselves and couldn’t.
So what happens if you are in the thick of it and are having, right now, this “ah ha” moment that you feel responsible but haven’t been given the appropriate and needed amount of authority to execute a winning strategy? The only way through this is to have the needed conversations, with the appropriate parties, as soon as possible. There’s no way around it. Ignoring the reality of the situation, any longer, could result in even more frustration that will lead to damaging relationships and poor outcomes.
TEAM EXERCISE THIS WEEK:
Create and design some time around meeting with key team members and ask them the following questions:
- What is our agreed upon outcome?
- What do you understand your role to be in reaching that outcome?
- What do you feel like you are responsible for?
- Do we both (all) agree on the best strategy to reach the outcome?
- What authority do you have to execute your role in that strategy?
- What system do we have and use for staying accountable to one another?
- What consequences will occur when we do not fulfill the commitments we’ve made to one another, to the team, and to our organization?
This, my friends, is where the rubber hits the road. When someone is given the authority but doesn’t feel responsible for the outcomes we get Enron. When an executive constantly takes responsibility and isn’t given authority to execute the strategy we get frustration, turn over, and burn out. Responsibility and authority without accountability leads to chaos and missed targets.
Here’s some additional resources that may help define Responsibility, Authority, and Accountability.
Authority, Responsibility and Accountability: The Right Mix
The section: “Avoid giving more authority than the assignment requires” is particularly relevant in some situations.
Delegating Responsibility and Authority
This article is the one that the above graphic was used from. Great explanation, in the article, about what creates the results in each of the quadrants.