Accountability without authority is a pervasive pathology in organizations. Holding someone accountable for playing a role without giving them the authority to succeed in the role is a recipe for failure. If undiagnosed, the impacts on a team culture are insidious and unhealthy. These effects can become a very real obstacle to developing a high-performance team that consistently delivers on desired goals and outcomes.
Several years ago I took on the role of CEO at a small nonprofit (see Authoring Your Own Success Story). At that time, we recognized that we needed to transition from being a top-down, directive leadership organization, as it was no longer working. The organization was growing and developing new programs and services, so we needed to create a more complete system-of-roles to manage this increase in complexity. Concentrating too much authority and responsibility in the hands of one directive leader wasn’t working.
We began this process by forming a full executive leadership team. From there, we continued to develop the system-of-roles, designating people as business leaders for each of our program/service areas and as functional leaders for the key functions (e.g., Finance, IT and HR). All looked good on paper—made for a nice looking org chart.
System-of-Roles Gone Bad
So what happened? Well, our budding system-of-roles and vision for becoming a more effective, responsive and innovative team came head-to-head with a classic malady in organizations: Founder’s syndrome. The visionary founder and Board chair for the organization, though he was ostensibly behind the changes we were making, ultimately wasn’t willing to relinquish authority to me, as the CEO. And I, in turn, as owner and architect of the system-of-roles, was unable to delegate authority downward. Big problem. All the right “organs” were in place to become a high-performance body, but we couldn’t connect them to the central nervous system, leading to organ failure.
Delegating accountability to a role without the required authority to play that role has very detrimental effects on an organization, including:
- Disempowerment for those playing roles without the necessary authority to succeed.
- The blame-game: people held accountable when they don’t deliver on their accountabilities.
- Loss of confidence over time as people are seen to be failing in their roles.
- Unhealthy tensions and conflict in an atmosphere of dysfunction.
- An inability to develop healthy interdependency among roles.
- A downward spiral of falling short in delivering on agreed upon goals and objectives.
The solution to this problem is simple but not necessarily easy. A newly-emerging stage of development—moving from a directive leadership to a interdependent system-of-roles stage, in this case—can be threatening to the old paradigm.
What is needed to create a healthy system-of-roles is to empower each role with the authority to:
- Advocate for what they need to be successful from the perspective of their role.
- Have final call on specific decisions, as defined by agreed upon decision-making protocols.
- Own their P&L if they are business leaders.
- Delegate authority down into their team.
- Experiment and innovate, with room to fail and learn.
Ask yourself this question: Does every key issue, relationship and perspective in your organization have an owner with the accountability and authority for them to succeed in playing their role?