Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Authority, Responsibility, Accountability

I had an argument with my boss yesterday.

I was discussing with him the challenges of doing my job based on the decreased resourcing we are currently experiencing. He was challenging me on a response that I had written, that they represented either a failure of my department or malicious intent and that it needed to be significantly strengthened in order to appear to be serious.

"Resources" I said. "I need resources. This is written based on what I can do."

"You are the Management Rep" was the response. "You have the authority to do this."

At this point I became a bit feisty.

"I have no authority" I retorted.

"That's not true! You're the management rep" was the response.

"When you and two other senior management types get in a room together and within 10 minutes decide to do something which in the opinion of three departments ought not to be done, I have no authority!"

Silence. "Well, if you make that decision I would support you. You are the management rep. You have the responsibility and accountability." The word "authority" was carefully hanging on the air, never spoken.

Can you have authority without responsibility and accountability? This was the question I was left with as I left his office, smouldering in anger. To be held responsible and accountable for something over which you have no really authority to make decisions seems to me like a fool's bargain, like being set up to become the next "reason things went terribly wrong here" guy.

Often I think the problems is reversed - people get authority and they push the responsibility and accountability away on others, the "ability" to make decisions and see that they are nor carried out or occur, a sort of "Management by Fiat" in which I wish things into existence but am not responsible for making them occur.

I find myself in the other area however, the realm of trying to hold together the remnants of my responsibility without the authority to actually make anything happen. It's an uncomfortable thing - an untenable thing, in the long run.

Without authority, responsibility and accountability merely become two ends of the rope that are used to hang someone.


Anonymous said...

One of the most cogent and relevant pieces you've ever written. Applicable to so many lines of work these days. Bravo.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Thank you.

I think the thing that struck me most about the conversation was the assertion that authority exists and that when the point was made that it does not, the silent transfer to accountibility and responsiblity - a sort of stealth sidestep of the real issue.