Responsibility, Accountability and Authority

Words mean things. One of the biggest problems with managerial practices and the concepts constructed to support them, is the lack of clarity. And whenever things are not clear, people make stuff up, like holacracy, self directed work groups, management by objective, results based performance.

My thanks to Nick Forrest and his book How Dare You Manage, to bring some clarity to three words, responsibility, accountability and authority.

You see, you may think you have a communication problem, but you more likely have an accountability and authority problem. You may think you are observing a personality conflict, but you more likely have an accountability and authority problem.

Accountability, or an accountability is a contract between a manager and team member related to an agreed upon output. An accountability is a contracted output.

Responsibility is a feeling of obligation, created and maintained within an individual to perform or take action. It is a feeling generally connected to a contracted output (accountability). Responsibility that is NOT connected to an accountability can be a recipe for disaster, because noble action may be taken without regard for a defined objective.

Authority is a limit. Authority is a limit, within which an individual has the freedom to use their discretionary judgment to make decisions (even the wrong decision) and control resources to reach a defined objective (goal, task assignment).

Whenever I see some management fad, like holacracy, emerge, it is likely because these three words have never been accurately defined. And in that void, people make stuff up. And sometimes, that stuff is nonsense. And sometimes, the nonsense can lead us astray, waste resources and in the end, destroy the organization that we were trying to build in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Responsibility, Accountability and Authority

  1. Scotswhahae

    If only life and business were that simplistic! If you work in operations then your job is about commanding and controlling the time, labour and technical resources towards an agreed output. For the jobs in operations your vision makes sense. Be aware however that this is a functional perspective, not a universal one!

    What if you work in R&D and the output cannot be defined because it has not been invented yet? Often these are highly talented creative people who cannot work and won’t work under tyrannical command and control regimes. Creativity needs a certain kind of environment to thrive, and a business that thinks performance here is optional will see its business have falling profits and die.

    What if you work in Procurement or Supply Chain and the suppliers do not report to you, there is little commercial leverage and no formal contractual relationships in place. Under those circumstances getting the suppliers to all do whatever specified output the senior person in your organisation wants may be genuinely impossible. How can this procurement / supply chain person be held responsible or accountable when they can’t possibly have authority over the suppliers?

    What if you work in HR, by your rules do we start firing HR people because the output of a perfect problem free workforce was not achieved?

    Different functions in a business do different things, and they each have their own set of cultures, rules and ways to be measured. We need to respect this, and stop imagining that how it works for us is how it should work for everyone else. Each function needs to be managed in the best way to suit its purpose, and the business needs all of its functions to work well and respect each other and their methods and measures if the enterprise as a whole is to be successful.

  2. Matt

    You have Responsibility and Accountability explicitly backwards. Check Merriam-Webster for these definitions.

    Responsibility is the contract, the “state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone”. Responsibility is externally assigned, given or taken. You can be responsible for something and neglect it, at which point you are not accountable.

    Accountability is the behavior, the “obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”. You can choose to be accountable for something that you are not responsible for (the point the book is trying to make). Accountability is entirely an internal decision.

    You are correct in one thing though: Words mean things.


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