Delegating Responsibility, Authority, and Accountability

Once goals and objectives are set and aligned with the mission, vision, and values, action must be taken by the manager or leader to delegate responsibility, authority, and accountability to the employee.

A dictionary definition of “delegation” presents us with the idea of 

“empowering (one) to act for another.”organize

At no time does it say anything about dumping a problem on someone else and walking away. Unfortunately, many employees, and leaders, take the notion of delegation to such an extreme. They read things like “the full authority to act must accompany delegation of responsibility’ and believe that, once empowered, they are free to “act” or decide alone. Experience tells one that very few leaders make decisions in a vacuum. Rather, they work with others and review their ideas with others before arriving at a decision. Certainly, one can agree with the concept that authority must accompany responsibility. Beyond that, one must also be held accountable for the actions taken or decisions made.

Most people can’t draw a distinction among responsibility, authority, and accountability.

Byars (2004, p. 444) tells us that responsibility is accepting the “obligation to perform certain tasks and assume certain duties.”

The Project Management Body of Knowledge, PMBOK (2004), defines authority as “the right to apply resources, expend funds, make decisions, or give approvals.”

In a 2004 article in Strategic Finance, Gunn defines accountability as “answering for your actions, taking the appropriate blame (or credit).” This definition of accountability implies taking ownership of the results of your actions.

People in an organization want to know “what it’s gonna take” to get empowered and trusted with responsibility, authority, and accountability.  Supervisors or leaders must be convinced that employees are ready to accept and perform on new and greater challenges.  In The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith say that “for most of us such trust and interdependence do not come easily; it must be earned and demonstrated repeatedly if it is to change behavior.”  They have added the idea of earning trust as a repeating process.  My own writing describes empowerment as cyclical and building.

The bottom line is that each of us has to start by accepting small levels of responsibility, authority, and accountability.  If we do well with small levels, we can hope to be given larger and larger levels.  No CEO started at that level.  Almost all of them worked their way up until they were willing and able to accept and deal with multi-million or multi-billion dollar decisions.  They earned the power to do so.


Stephen P. (Steve) Czerniak

About the author: Mr. Czerniak retired after a successful career that culminated in fifteen years of experience as an internal consultant and “change agent.” He is currently an Executive-in-Residence at the Macomb-Oakland University Incubator and a volunteer with the Troy Historic Village and Historical Society.

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