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Responsibility Without Authority

This article was written by in Career and Work. 7 comments.


A past employer had a hard time keeping his employees from running away within three years of starting their jobs; for this small organization, the turnover rate was high, and without consistency, the organization compromised the service it intended to provide and the mission that was its essence. There is nothing unique to this situation; in high-demand, high-stress, and high-minded organizations, the revolving door situation appears.

Think about situations where your core team, or your entire team is a group of a dozen or less and where your purpose, a grand purpose, is inspired by one leader, your employer, with a vision. This can be the case in a start-up, a non-profit organization, or even a “small” project within a corporation. “Small” doesn’t always mean small. You could be, for example, affecting the lives of tens of thousands of young adults with a “small” project.

The visionary employer has the passion to see the vision come to life and can inspire those around him or her to be passionate about the mission as well. When the vision is strong, it can be difficult to let go of control. I understand this. Unfortunately, by not letting go of control, those who are supposed to be inspired by the mission will be frustrated.

A quality of good leadership is the ability of delegate. Visionary leaders know this, and will often delegate responsibility in order to run the organization efficiently. Delegation shows trust. The employer who delegates is saying, “You are here because you are an integral part of the process of moving towards our shared vision, and I trust you to do the work you are here to do.”

Visionary leaders often stop there. As a result, a big piece of the puzzle is missing. While the boss may trust the workers with the work, when it comes down to decision-making, he or she, because of the strength of the vision, needs to stay in control. So a trusted employee may have the responsibility for a piece of the project, but the ultimate authority for making decisions remains with the head visionary. This is a problem: the leader who trusts his or her employees by delegating responsibility without delegating decision-making authority doesn’t actually trust others to carry out the mission.

For the employee, this is a difficult situation. The lack of authority prevents the machine of business from moving. At all critical junctures, the process must stop and wait for the visionary to make a decision. And when the visionary is self-contradictory, the problem can be bigger than just a delay.

The boss is often keenly aware of this situation. He wouldn’t be in a position of leadership if he weren’t keenly self-aware — at least, ideally. When you build up the courage to confront the leader about his inability to delegate authority, he may respond by agreeing, calling it a character flaw, and accepting the aspects of his personality he cannot change. This is, after all, a good lesson for anyone: to improve yourself, focus on the aspects you can change.

So what do you do if you find yourself in a job where you have responsibility without authority? This can be a frustrating situation. You want to do a great job because you believe in the company’s mission or the project’s goals, but your decisions are thwarted and untrusted. You’ve been given the responsibility to lead an aspect of your team’s work, but you are blocked from doing your job at every critical juncture by the same individual who supposedly trusted you to play that role. And then you’re held accountable when the same decisions you were prevented from making on your own result in failure.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, classifies personalities based on how they handle internal and external expectations. I won’t go into too many details about these personality types in this article, but I’ll just focus on her fourth: Obligers. Obligers are willing to and often put their own expectations aside in order to satisfy the expectations of others.

I should include a warning: Like any kind of personality typing, which some might say abandoned actual science and entered the realm of pop psychology after Carl Jung, these are all generalizations that might not hold true for any individual person.

Visionary leaders who refuse to delegate authority are best surrounded by “Obligers.” But they often don’t hire or choose to work with Obligers. In fact, anyone other than an Obliger is going to have a difficult time given responsibility without authority. “Upholders,” who play by the rules and are motivated by fulfillment, can get overwhelmed when the scope of the project is large. And visionary goals tend to result in large projects operated by small teams.

“Questioners” are happy to fulfill others’ expectations, but only after they’ve verified there’s a good reason. Some visionary leaders don’t have time to be questioned on their tactics, goals, or decisions. “Rebels” tend to resist expectations and have a much harder time dealing with the lack of authority, not to mention authority in general.

Think of a military commander surrounded by trained soldiers. Trained soldiers obey, do not question orders, and are generally not free to make decisions on their own except in the heat of the moment in a life and death situation. Visionary leaders want soldiers.

Can you be more like an Obliger? If so, adopting those personality traits — a willingness to forgo self-fulfillment in order to play by the visionary’s rules — will help you adjust. Putting aside your need to feel enabled in your own job may be necessary if you feel strongly about the mission and want it to succeed at the expense of your own self-respect. But in the end, being someone you’re not, adopting personality traits just to survive, can be psychologically harmful at worst and emotionally draining at best.

If you feel the need for authority in addition to responsibility, you have two real options other than stirring up internal conflict: Work for someone who isn’t a visionary leader or work for yourself.

Have you ever been a position of responsibility without authority? How did you handle the situation?

Photo: Flickr/The US Army

Updated July 15, 2013 and originally published July 10, 2013. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jacob @ iHeartBudgets

I have experienced this, though without the “visionary” part. Being held accountable for something you don’t have the authority to carry out is ridiculous. I creates an impossible situation where the employee can’t win. They just become a scapegoat when things go wrong, and ignored when things are going well. Not fun.

This story also reminds me of Dave Ramsey’s story a bit. I read through is book “Entreleadership”, and he talked about how hard it was to let go of control, because he had put his heart and soul into growing his business. It took him YEARS to allow people to make decisions without his approval, and he said that was a real maturing stage in his business. When you can go on vacation and not bring a phone as a business owner, you have arrived :)

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,550 (Platinum)

I have read Entreleadership, but it sounds like something I might like. I’ll check it out — thanks for the recommendation.

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avatar krantcents

At first, I thought about my prior positions in the business world, but couldn’t think of any. I have been a teacher for 12 years and realize I have responsibility for my nearly 200 students, but no authority. Teaching is very rewarding, but I have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, parents who are not responsive or care and administrators who don’t help. I am not complaining though because I am in charge. I learned how to get around all the problems and I am pretty effective with the children. I have increased my pass rate percentage which is my personal goal. Parenting is important in education!

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avatar marie@familymoneyvalues.com

In my experience, if you work for someone else, you are always going to have some loss of authority – even if you do have responsibility. I worked for mid-cap companies and there was always a ‘chain of command’. Some decisions you could make yourself, others had to go up the ladder to varying degrees. BUT, if you have responsibility with absolutely no authority, you will never get the job done correctly. To work within a system where you have limited authority, you have to get a feel for your domain and understand the culture, mission, goals and climate of the management and executives in the company…. you have to have the ability to see the bigger picture and know about it’s component parts.

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avatar thepotatohead

I’m sort of in this situation at my job with certain things. I’m designated as the POC for certain aspects, but yet have no authority to make higher level decisions. Sort of annoying when people ask me higher level questions and want policy type decisions :/

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avatar John S @ Frugal Rules

This is actually very similar to the situation I had been in a little over a year ago. I was trusted with some things, but ultimately not trusted with much at all. I actually solved it by leaving and help my wife manage our business. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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avatar qixx ♦1,895 (Half-Dollar)

“Action before asking.” Luckily in my current position my manager is willing to delegate the decision making authority most of the time. He still likes to have the say in some situations. The bigger problem is further up the chain. His philosophy is unless the policies prohibit it action then ask for forgiveness if needed and it will often not be needed.

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