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Volume 24, Issue 28;   July 10, 2024: On Delegating Accountability: I

On Delegating Accountability: I


As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it?
The standard conception of delegation

The standard conception of delegation. The concept is that whatever work was allocated to someone at the Manager level can be re-allocated "downward" to the level subordinate to the Manager, without transforming the work in any way. The reality is rather different. When delegating occurs, the jobs of both Manager and Subordinate are thereby transformed, as is the task that was delegated. The transformation occurs because of the way responsibility, authority, and accountability are interlocked.

It's often said that although you can delegate a responsibility of your own, you cannot delegate your own accountability. This warning about delegation raises several reasonable questions about delegation. If I'm accountable for Task X, and I delegate Task X to my Subordinate A, am I still accountable for Task X even though I have delegated it to Subordinate A? Can I hold Subordinate A accountable for Task X? If I'm still accountable for Task X after delegating it to Subordinate A, are we both therefore accountable for Task X? How can two people be accountable for the same task?

In this Part I of an exploration of delegation, I'll consider the sources of confusions about what can be delegated, and what cannot. In Part II, I offer guidelines for delegating in ways that are clear about what happens to accountability.

Sources of confusion: context, culture, and delegation

Three concepts It's often said that although you can delegate
a responsibility of your own, you cannot
delegate your own accountability
that together define the ethics, limits, and obligations of our roles at work are responsibility, authority, and accountability. Although they are critically important, the precise meanings of these three terms — responsibility, authority, and accountability — depend on the context in which we use them. For example, Responsibility has one set of meanings in the context of criminal law, and another set in the context of organizational governance. Because this dependence on context makes for difficulties for any discussion of their applicability, I'll consider only private (corporate) organizations.

Even with that limitation, asking people to define these three terms exposes some confusion among their definitions. That isn't surprising, because many dictionaries define these concepts in terms of each other. For example, Dictionary.com offers accountable as one of the definitions of responsible, and responsible as one of the definitions of accountable. The problem is widespread enough to have drawn the attention of researchers. [McGrath 2018.1]

Adding complexity are two other factors: cultural idiosyncrasies and the complications that arise when we delegate responsibilities. Cultural idiosyncrasies create difficulties arising from small but important differences in the way people understand responsibility, for example. And delegating creates problems because the act of delegating can lead to changes in the distribution of responsibility, authority, and accountability across the people of the organization.

Three definitions

To illustrate these difficulties, consider formulating definitions of responsibility, authority, and accountability.

According to Dictionary.com, to be responsible is to be "answerable or accountable, as for something within one's power, control, or management." Thus, one's responsibilities include all items for which one is accountable; everything that is "within one's power, control, or management."
According to Dictionary.com, "Authority is the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes." Authority is usually conferred within a defined domain, such as a business unit or a field of specialty. Authority thus has a jurisdiction within which it confers the right to control, command, or determine a resolution of issues. The jurisdiction can be limited geographically or in some other way. But in organizations, jurisdiction also has limits in the nature of the issues it can address.
According to Dictionary.com, accountability is "the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable." And to be accountable is to be "…subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable."

Next steps

With these definitions in hand, the next step is to overhaul the approach to delegation. Instead of just designating some individual as henceforth "responsible" for Task X, take explicit steps to redistribute authority, responsibility, and accountability for Task X. And those steps are the topic for next time.  On Delegating Accountability: II Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On Delegating Accountability: II  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[McGrath 2018.1]
Stephen Keith McGrath, Stephen Jonathan Whitty, "Accountability and responsibility defined," International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 11:3, 2018, pp.687-707. Available here. Retrieved 14 June 2024. Back

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The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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