Almost all leaders say they want to empower their people. Almost everyone says they want to be empowered. The linkage should be easy. But it rarely is. The issue is different views of what empowerment really means. The way forward is in careful management of accountability hand-offs from both sides: the person passing the accountability and the person receiving it.

There’s a natural progression. In smaller organizations, people do whatever it takes to get things done regardless of their assigned role.

Then organizations grow to the point where people can specialize and focus. At this point organizations need people to coordinate workflows across specialists (or even silos). These coordinators help the doers clarify their roles and linkages between roles so the organization as a whole can be more productive than can individuals on their own.

The tricky part comes when an organization grows to the point where the coordinators need coordinating. As these higher-level managers become further and further removed from the real work, they focus more and more on internal decision-making and people management and less and less on the organization’s customers.

It’s at this point when people start introducing tools like RACI to help clarify who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed on work streams. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The trouble comes when the hand-offs are not clean.


RACI (Simplified)

– Accountable: Overall ownership of results. Drives decisions. Ensures implementation.

– Responsible: Does defined work.

– Consulted: Provides input.

– Informed: Kept up-to-date. (One-way communication.)

A task, project or job starts with an approving authority passing accountability to someone else.

Think about passing the baton in a relay race. If the person passing the baton lets go too early or the person receiving the baton takes over too late, the baton drops. If the person passing the baton holds on too long and there’s too much of an overlap, there’s a slow down. Got to get that hand-off just right.

Accountability is the baton between the empowerer and the empowered. Try to pass it before the receiver is ready, willing and able and the receiver can’t handle it. Pass it too late and the receiver feels disempowered and disengages.

Once accountability has been passed, the approving authority must get out of the way. Certainly they may keep the right to approve certain major decisions. And they should definitely be available to provide advice and counsel as needed. But they must give the accountable person the direction, resources, guided authority to make tactical decisions, and the true accountability they need to own the results, manage those responsible for doing the work, and consult with and inform others as appropriate.


Implications for you

No leader sets out to get in the way. In a smaller organization with lots of free-flowing information and conversations, you can make or approve most or all decisions. As the organization grows, the more decisions you choose to be involved in, the more of a bottleneck you will become.

At some point you have to flip the balance from the approving authority (you) being more important to the accountable person being more important. Do three things:

1. Prompt the change. Be explicit that you now expect those accountable to take ownership for every aspect of their areas of accountability – including making it as easy as possible for you as the approving authority to approve their recommendations. You should then focus more on coordinating across than on managing down.

2. Shift the balance of consequences. Provide positive reinforcement for behaviors in line with these changes and dissuade actions in line with your old way of doing things.

3. Communicate the shift broadly. Use what you’re doing as a model for others so they will be encouraged to pass accountability on in turn. You’re out to eliminate bottlenecks, not just shift the bottleneck from you to others.

It’s relatively simple. If you want people to take accountability, you have to let them do so.