Accountability Requires Authority

My son got a C on his Algebra II test today. The work is really Trigonometry.

As part of the new Common Core methodology being used in his school, four kids work as a team. They are responsible for learning the material with very little help from their teacher. This is an extremely non-directive approach. The teacher gives them an assignment, and they are supposed to talk it through with their group and figure it out.

In this class, the students take their tests as a team. They share the work and share the answers with each other.

The teacher grades a couple of questions from each student’s test. In this case, one student wrote down the wrong an answer to a question, and his wrong answer was a difference between a B and a C grade on the test. All three of the other students had the right answer. My son feels that this unfair.

Children are born with an innate sense of fairness. To prove this point all you have to do is give one child a cookie while giving a child sitting next to them two cookies, to understand how deeply children understand fairness.

But the idea here is more interesting for us here because of the business application: If you hold someone accountable for an outcome, you must also give them the authority necessary to achieve that outcome.

  • I’ve seen countless leaders give a team member responsibility for an outcome without giving them the authority over the people whose help they needed to achieve that outcome. The team member has the accountability but lacks the necessary authority to ensure that they achieve the outcome.
  • I’ve seen plenty of leaders retain authority for themselves, requiring the person they have charged with a responsibility to come back to them for permission to take every necessary step. They fear giving up their power, when in reality, this is an exercise of their real power (and part of one of the most important things a leader does, namely building a leadership factory).
  • Some leaders are fine holding people accountable, but chafe at giving them the budget authority they need to get things done. But without giving them the power to spend money, they are unlikely to achieve the result.

When you task someone with something they can achieve without help, it is okay to hold them accountable for that result. But if the task requires that they employ other people to complete that task, you must also give the authority to hold others accountable.

My son has no formal authority. But he does have influence. He failed here, but that’s how we learn to build our influence. I’ve invested him with the authority to protest the grade—another exercise in building influence.

Filed under: Accountability, Influence

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