Authority vs Responsibility

Classic management theory teaches that authority and responsibility are intertwined and should be delegated accordingly.

The theory is that if you have a properly trained leader, and give him or her the authority and responsibility for a particular operational function they should be able to cause that operational function to come into control and meet performance expectations. As we have all experienced, that sometimes happens, and often does not.


Before you say: “emotional intelligence”, let’s consider some obvious facts.

Authority requires the leader to make the plan and explain any performance variances to the plan back to their boss. The assumption of authority is that a good plan once properly implemented, will produce the desired results.

Responsibility, however recognizes that planning and performance involve circular feedback to be successful. Well-managed responsibility finds the leader asking questions, such as:

  • What do you (the frontline worker) think the problem is?

  • What do you think the potential solutions (countermeasures) are?

  • What countermeasures do you think we should select?

  • Who must do what, when, and where to test the countermeasures?

Well-managed responsibility assumes that all plans are experiments and can only be evaluated through scientific methods, starting with PDCA.

So, authority and responsibility are two different things and the smart leader knows this.

He or she, develops collaborative win-win relationships with the frontline resources, over whom they have authority, to make sure that the accountability, and therefore the responsibility, are shared.

This is the beginning of associate engagement, which increases proportionately to how well associates are being treated by a leader. Options include:

  • Respected collaborators, or

  • Full-time equivalents (FTE’s) to be told what to do.

The second approach can lead to hostility and degrading operational performance, whereas the first has been proven over and over to be a winning approach.

In healthcare, and other very complicated industries, this leader to frontline exchange is particularly important. Generalist leaders rotating frequently, with weak process knowledge, but lots of authority can be quite unaware of what is impacting performance positively or negatively.

The deeper the process knowledge and collaborative rapport with the frontline associates, the better the results.

As Dr. Deming stated: “if the process is right, the results will be right”.