Authority, responsibility, and the chilling effect of an imbalance between the two

Authority and responsibility, ideally, are two sides of the same coin.

Invariably, they become imbalanced, and one can trace a lot of personal trauma, and organizational churn to this fact.  If one has too much authority and does not take responsibility to the same degree, they can become narcissistic, entitled, and ultimately highly destructive.

Conversely, if one has too much responsibility and not the authority to match, they can become depressed, beleaguered, and destroyed.

Individuals must be vigilant in ensuring their own responsibility and authority are matching, in every aspect of their personal and professional lives, and equally organizations must seek out and find these imbalances and correct them at every level.

How does one know they are imbalanced one way or the other?
Too Much Authority  (The Emperor has No Clothes)

Are you a CEO or project lead? Ask yourself, honestly, the following questions.  If you’re an employee or acting in a role, think about these questions with regard to your leader.  Also, as a CEO think about this with relation to your direct reports and other project leadership staff organizationally.  Think of your corporate policy that either enables or does not prevent these things.

  • Do you often find yourself blaming your staff for company failings?
  • Do you never accept blame?
  • Do you think apologizing is a sign of weakness?
  • Do you find you’re firing and hiring often but fail to notice the one common denominator (YOU)?
  • Do you hear the same criticisms a lot, particularly from exiting partners and employees?
  • Are you often frustrated with your staff, thinking you “can’t find good help these days!”?
  • Do you find your most trusted, close advisers almost never disagree with you?

You, then, are a likely candidate for having too much authority and you are not taking enough responsibility for your own decisions.  You need to correct this.  Encourage dissent among your most trusted advisers.  Reward, do not punish a critical viewpoint of your position or vision.  Show strength by admitting your failings openly and in front of everyone else so they will feel free to do the same.  Demonstrate leadership by taking actions to improve yourself and encourage your team by example.

The importance of Dissent – Look to the Ants!

We often think we need to kill carpenter ants invading our home.  The truth is, carpenter ants show you where dry rot is in your home, and you should respect them, and follow them, and then remove the dry rot.  Don’t kill the ants, just watch as they leave once the dry rot is gone.  Critical voices in our teams are carpenter ants, they give you objections internally so you can handle them before you take the idea to market and consumers will correct you the hard way. (In the case of Carpenter ants, killing them instead results in your house falling down)

Too much responsibility is unfortunate with few options

The other case of too much responsibility and not enough authority is much simpler, but less positive.  The first step is to be a squeaky wheel and let your management know, and if your direct report doesn’t help, escalate as high as you can to sound the alarm.    Ideally management is always asking if you need more resources or decision making power to do your job, and at these moments its important to answer honestly or you’ll never get the help you need.  Unfortunately barring this, the only option is to move on to another organization, and end the relationship.   Carrying on in a situation where your authority doesn’t match your responsibility is so stressful and damaging – that no job or relationship is worth it.  It is a toxic situation and you need to end it.

The orphaned child – too much responsibility with little or no authority

A good example of too much responsibility and not enough authority might be a child with a drug addicted parent.  The child cannot feed themselves, or elect to do necessary things like paying the bills because they cannot access banking information.  Like a poor child in this situation, anyone in this situation needs immediate help or at the very least they need to get far away from the toxic situation as soon as they can.


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