Responsibility Without Authority – The Worst Management Strategy

Perhaps the most unrecognized factor which leads to failed projects, initiatives, low employee morale and dissent among employees, this form of utterly ineffective delegation is often overlooked. Find out what I personally discovered, how and why not to make this mistake.

UPDATE : Since publishing this post, I have received numerous emails asking for what might be a possible solution to the problem of responsibility without authority. So for those interested, I have created another post on the possible solutions one could use.

A while back, I was having a chat over lunch with a very close friend of mine managing an ongoing ERP project, I asked how is the progress of his project. With a somewhat cynical and disdained look on his face, he replied “Well everyone is working as hard as possible to get things done, but the delays caused by the project are well…… caused by ineffective management.” When I pressed on if there is anything that can be done to rectify the situation, he replied in exact quotes “Well the problem here is we have responsibility without authority”, which really became the inspiration for this blog post as I thought he captured the essence of the problem in such an exact manner.

I then pored through some readings on blogs and articles online when I wanted to find out if this was a common problem in most organizations, and indeed it was.  Basically this is what is known as the No Authority Gauntlet (NAG) Syndrome. How you achieve the NAG Syndrome is very simple, paraphrased from the Executive Leadership Blog.

  • You delegate someone a management job but one without the necessary management authorities. In other words, make this person accountable for the work of others but with no accompanying clout.
  • There will be other employees reporting to this person but they either have other real managers as well with authority or recognizes that there is someone else making the final decisions.
  • These employees may sincerely make commitments, however when it’s time for prioritizing work, the work that has authority from either the real managers or the decision maker will be first in line.
  • Lacking in authority, the person which was given the accountable job will resort to the only authority the person has; NAGGING or being a pain in the ass just to get things done. At the end of the day, this person is accountable.

From the simple example above, you can see how this form of ineffective delegation is working to make everyone’s life a living hell. At the beginning, the objectives may rally everyone together, but as soon as the enthusiasm dies down, it’s close to impossible to get things done. At its worst form, it may even bring a company to its knees.


Snail Pace Decision Making – The ‘Printing Costs Experience’

I can relate to this very well and I will share my personal experience on the matter in which I will dub the ‘printing costs experience’. When we first started in year 2009, during our first marketing campaign I delegated to our Sales & Marketing Manager to get everything necessary for our fist participation in an industry event and at this point in time unfortunately I assumed that she and I was provided with all the necessary authority to carry out work. I remember vividly a simple matter of ‘printing costs for a poster’ was escalated to me by the Regional Marketing Manager (we were utilizing the resources of a shared marketing department at that time) in which I was supposed to seek approval ‘from higher management above myself’. I was quite perplexed by this and thought perhaps the printing costs must be exorbitantly high, so I asked her how much the printing costs were, in which she replied $200.00 or so, and I was just staring at her blankly when she told me that. Noticing my ‘shock’ that such an amount had to go through my Sales & Marketing Manager, herself, me and then up to higher management, she quickly continued “Ermmm…. It’s not about it being expensive but it’s more of that every cost and expense needs to go through management approval”. To speed things up, I asked her to just go ahead with the printing and assured her that I will be personally responsible for anything that could go wrong (what could possibly go wrong with a $200 printing cost besides not getting those posters on time?) and that I would get the necessary approvals meanwhile.

This simple experience of mine shows how detrimental it can be to a decision making process and the agility of an organization to respond accordingly. However, the worse thing would be the second experience in which I am about to relate which affects employee morale.


Effects On Employee Morale & Spirit

As the head of the team, one would have some control over costs and expenditures if he or she is to be put in charge of the revenues and profitability. But as the tile of this post implies, such is not always the case. I am by nature and conditioned by past working experience, someone who values employee’s morale and spirit, and would do anything I can to ensure it stays at high or peak levels.

Last year when our new team was established to refocus our business from Oracle’s CRM solution to NetSuite ERP, we took in just 6 short months starting from scratch (most team members had no prior ERP experience) to a full experienced team handling a major multi-country ERP project and we landed our first major NetSuite customer account. It was an important milestone for the team within such a short time and I wanted to give everyone due recognition for their hard work and endless hours they put into overtime work and self-studies.

I planned to arrange a nice dinner (they truly deserved it) so they could take some time off work and really just enjoy each other’s company. I placed in necessary approvals and what not, and of course was advised by management that it won’t be possible and will not be approved (to be fair, my country manager did offer an alternative but I thought it was going to be delayed for too long and a break was much needed urgently as I could sense the low morale going on). Once again, no relevant authority to approve expenses!

So in the end I just foot the bill myself (only my partner knows about this) and the team assumed that it was going to be under some entertainment expenses for me to be claimed from the company. It was indeed a good night with good food, drinks and excellent company. Every cent was worth it.

What I’m trying to highlight here is that had I not just bit the bullet to foot the bill and arrange this, the low morale and spirit from the team from overtime and increased workload may have just continued on a downward spiral. On the other side of the coin, think about the manager who wants to reward and provide recognition to his team for doing a good job but can’t, it will just make the manager feel powerless and frustrated contributing to low morale on the manager’s part.

This would definitely be an exception, as I do it because I own part of the company. I’m very sure if it was just a usual employee in an organization, no one would want to do this. Unfortunately this area still leaves a lot of room for improvement for myself and the company.

Single Point Of Delay

My next point is the effect on decision making processes. When someone is not empowered with the authority, not only does it frustrate the people who are trying to get the job done, in my opinion, it also drowns and overburdens the person who is ‘stuck’ with all the decision-making.

For control freaks, it’s just heaven to be in a situation like that, but for people getting actual work done it fools them to thinking the administrative tasks are more important. This is especially bad if you are the owner of a company as one is supposed to be focusing on the important items like figuring out the relevant processes to be put in place, sales & marketing strategy, etc.

This real-life example will definitely show you how things can be taken to an extreme. In one of our software project implementation, we had to configure close to a HUNDRED workflows which handles approvals. And the problem is when you are doing a multi-country roll-out, this is multiplied by the number of countries in which the system will be implemented for. In typical scenarios, you would have a person in charge of the country making the key decisions for the country he\she is in charge unless a certain threshold has been reached (i.e. expenditures above $500,000) but in this case, ALL and I mean every single approval went back to the owner of the company.

So when you look at the owner’s dashboards, it’s full of approval tasks to be completed. This is just ridiculous; shouldn’t a system dashboard only show you what is important or bring your attention to items which are an anomaly? And whilst this person approves everything, the bottleneck just stays at the owner…. We come to a situation where the owner is dragged down with hundreds of approvals to make while the people who are supposed to be carrying out the tasks will just wait till their turn comes. (And of course the number of workflows to be configured by our team could have been significantly reduced as well)

Avoidance & Advice

Granted it may be necessary for processes and controls to be in place for effective management, but trust your team to do the work they are entrusted with. If you have given a responsibility or accountability to the person, make sure that it comes with the necessary authority to get the job done.

But what can we do to ensure that we still have control of what is to happen at the end? My advice is to set some reasonable limits for the team and give room for experimentation. If you are worried about granting too much authority, then start off small and agree on specific milestones to be achieved and measured before more authority can be granted.

For startups or smaller companies which may not have the benefit of a larger staff and perhaps having an owner who prefers a more hands-on approach, you have got to think about effective delegation. Though it may be risky to do so, but if you did not trust your team in the first place then would you have hired them? The potential upside to trusting them and providing them with reasonable authority to carry out their work seems too much to ignore. Based on my post alone, improvement in job satisfaction, employee morale, project success rate, and a faster decision making process, provides me with certainty that there are definitely more benefits as opposed to the potential risks. So go ahead now and delegate RESPONSIBILITIES WITH AUTHORITY

For those who want to find out more about the resources I went through, I will list down some of the links below on this blog post so that you can have some excellent references if you want to explore more.

Responsibility Without Authority – The Worst Management Strategy

4 thoughts on “Responsibility Without Authority – The Worst Management Strategy

  1. Rachel says:

    Yup, I’ve had this problem in past roles. Your job title includes the word “manager”, but you have no hiring authority. No authority to get rid of non-performing or members of the team, or people with personality issues that make their colleagues miserable. No authority to buy resources, or to reward the team for a job well done on the company’s budget, etc, etc. (I too put my hand in my own pocket to thank the team when faced with that dilemma. I doubt I’d do it again.)

    In that type of role, you’re basically just there to hand-hold people that are less experienced than yourself. And to justify how those people use their time that the company pays for. Often this involves filling in and producing meaningless statistical reports that the company could more easily obtain by buying a decent timesheet system for less than a day or two of what I cost them in salary.

    These days, rather than engage in such meaningless and ultimately thankless activities, I stick to providing my services as an outside consultant. There’s something about charging between £300 and £500 per day that focuses companies’ collective managerial minds and gets any BS like the above out of the way. Nobody asks you to fill in meaningless statistical reports, or to try to get acceptable performance out of individuals without ability or initiative, when they’re paying a premium for your time.

    I do enjoy creating productive environments where star performers get to shine, and any less-than-stellar colleagues or jerks simply aren’t tolerated. But, bottom line, I don’t enjoy doing that enough to fight through bureaucracy to get to make the difference I’m capable of making when I’m afforded no real authority to do so.

    1. Victor Chin says:

      Hi Rachel,

      Thanks for the comment and I do empathize with you on the experience which you have been through. I guess it just adds to our experience to both be a better leader and to recognize bad forms of management to avoid in the future.

      And good to hear that things sound better in your new role. I wish you all the best in your future 🙂

  2. nicolayworren says:

    Victor, interesting blog post. Will use this in a course I teach on organization design! Kind regards, Nicolay Worren

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