Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Matching authority and responsibility: a management and leadership best practice

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 31, 2015

I often speak and write about business best practices, and pursuing and instilling them in organizations has been a point of focus in my professional life and both when I have worked in-house and when I have worked as an outside-sourced consultant. That is my goal for this posting, though I add that violating the basic, fundamental principles that I would discuss here can quickly devolve into morale breaking worst business practices. And I will discuss that side of this topic too.

My topic of discussion here is that of matching authority to make decisions, with responsibility for carrying through on them. And violations of this core alignment principle can happen at any level or point on a table of organization.

• A non-managerial employee can be told to carry out tasks and can be held responsible for their completion and for results achieved – or not. But that does not mean they are going to be immune to being micromanaged, and in effect required to perform on those tasks at a pace and in ways that would make success more difficult and challenging, if not impossible and at least according to completion schedules imposed.
• A more junior manager can find themselves being overruled and second guessed at seemingly every turn, but still have to meet all completion schedules on time and with solid, effective results.
• I have seen senior executive managers of businesses with day-to-day operational responsibilities over them, that have what are ostensibly hands-off owners, challenged in this same way. And decisions that they make and priorities they set in carrying out the work that they are responsible for, are continually questioned and overruled by these “hands-off” owners – and they are then held accountable for the results that are all but certain to arise when these businesses do not and cannot have and hew to any one single clear, ongoing operational approach or strategic vision.
• And this is just in-house; I have at least occasionally seen outside consultants overruled and even simultaneously and recurringly from conflicting directions – making their job impossible. When a consultant finds themselves in this at least potentially no-win position they have only two real responses available to them. They can meet with the most senior manager who they can find opportunity to speak with who directly or indirectly holds overall responsibility for what they are working on there. And they can strongly request the support from that executive that they would need if they are to cut through this authority/responsibility inconsistency, so they can get this assignment satisfactorily completed. And they have to clearly spell out what is holding them back and what they at minimum need in the way of support if they are going to be able to complete this work. And that quality of workplace requirement has to be agreed to. Or they can leave this assignment, stating why they are doing so or at least as much of that as the people they report to are prepared to hear, and with their reasons for withdrawing from this assignment stated in such a way as to (hopefully) avoid too much bridge burning or negative word of mouth or online complaint.

My more detailed fourth bullet point there, highlights something of how messy these responsibility/authority mismatches can get. They are if anything a lot more difficult when they arise strictly in-house as cited in my first three bullet points above; everyone there is in effect stuck there unless the people caught up in these challenges chose to leave what they had expected and wanted to be long-term jobs. Consultants expect assignments to complete and for them to move on. So any good consultant is always looking for that next possible workplace, employer and assignment anyway, so unlike a strictly in-house employee facing a possible loss of a job, they are more likely to prepared for a work and workplace change.

But up to here I have only been discussing one side of this challenge: that of the employee at whatever level on the table of organization who is directly hit with a real authority/responsibility mismatch. This practice poisons the atmosphere for everyone working with these individuals, as it leaves “witnessing” employees wondering when they are going to fall into this same untenable and deeply uncomfortable position too. The presence of this bad business practice erodes trust in the effectiveness and fairness of that business’ leadership and management.

And this also deeply and profoundly limits and hinders any manager who sets up these disconnects and mismatches too, and certainly when they do so repeatedly. This is poison too the performance potential of any team they might find themselves leading and stark nepotism or related aside, that ultimately has to come out and repeatedly in their own performance reviews too. Poorly managed teams do not perform well, and that cannot be hidden forever.

Ongoing underperformance and bad business performance can be expected to have obvious impact on businesses as a whole and on their resiliency and competitiveness when it is an owner who creates and keeps reiterating these mismatches.

Up to here I have been in effect defining a positive: effectively matching authority and responsibility by discussing its opposite and by discussing what it is not. That is in fact the easier side to this posting and to this issue. Now I flip this discussion around and look at the best practice itself – where it seems easy and straightforward in the abstract, but where it can become a lot more complicated in practice.

Managers, and for my third bullet point negative example of above: owners, do legitimately have to make goals and priorities decisions. And they at least occasionally have to change them and even when the people who they supervise are committed to and invested in what have now become older and outdated plans. The trick here is not in avoiding change or management oversight. It is in communicating both goal and priority changes and their reasoning with the people who have to change what they are doing. And this in general also has to include allowance for reasonable schedule shifts and other accommodations too – so any new path forward is both understood and realistic. Even when a manager, a more senior manager or executive, or an owner has to step in and make seemingly fundamental change, they have to be clear in what they are doing and why. And part of that means they have to have clearly listened to the people who report to them, and even if their answer is “no” regarding replaced plans, goals and understandings.

This posting is about matches and mismatches between authority and responsibility, but even more than that it is about not leaving employees at any level or position on the table of organization caught in-between when change is deemed to be necessary. It is about clarity and consistency and about giving these people realistic opportunity to do their jobs and on an ongoing basis and even when that means unraveling processes already in progress and redirecting the momentum that ongoing business activity creates.

As a final thought here, I add that the issues and challenges that I write of here are not business type, or business development stage-specific. Startups can run head first into these challenges, and in that regard I cite one of my earliest postings to this blog: Maintaining a Vision While Loosening Our Grip. I have seen this in larger more mature businesses too. And I have most definitely seen this in businesses that are facing what their managers and leaders see as crises, and particularly where they are changing what they do and want done on a more sudden here-and-now, ad hoc basis. Crisis calls for consistency and clarity, just as more stable business practice does – and especially and in both cases as these businesses require change and dynamism if they are to competitively succeed.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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