Learning & Development

Delegation—Understanding Authority vs. Responsibility

As we grow in our professional careers, our level of responsibility eventually outpaces the number of hours in our day. This is why managers are assigned staff. One of the benefits and responsibilities of management and supervisory positions is the delegation of certain tasks to subordinates.


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In a previous post, we discussed how to identify the tasks that are appropriate for delegation—the “what.” Here, we touch on an aspect of the “how” and look at the important distinction between delegating authority as opposed to responsibility.
A common statement and concept within the study of management is that although you can delegate authority, you cannot delegate responsibility. What does this mean exactly? Let’s look at each part individually.


“Authority” refers to the mandate given to an individual to take certain actions. It may include the ability to spend work time a certain way, to have access to certain resources, or even to dictate the activities of other employees. Essentially, authority is a means of accomplishing a task by means of being granted certain permissions.


“Responsibility” refers to the ultimate owner of a project, task, or course of action. The responsible party has to answer for the end result, good or bad. Even though the leader may be far-removed from the day-to-day activities, he or she is in charge of the entire process and needs to be accountable for the results.

Zuckerberg Example

A great recent example that illustrates the difference between delegating authority and delegating responsibility is seen in remarks made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg following intense scrutiny over the social media giant’s role in the spread of fake news in general and surrounding the 2016 presidential election specifically.
Speaking with reporters in one interview, Zuckerberg used the word “responsibility” 17 times, according to Fortune. At one point, Zuckerberg also said, “I started this place. I run it. And I am responsible for what happens here.”
Now, let’s be realistic. Facebook is a multibillion-dollar corporation with over 25,000 employees. Virtually every task in the company is delegated to someone other than Zuckerberg, from entry-level software developers to top executives. But his statement makes clear that he recognizes that, as the leader of the company, he is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on there.
The concept of delegating authority while maintaining responsibility is difficult for some new managers to grasp, and it can be tempting to try to blame subordinates for failures.
This is a terrible habit, and managers should be trained from the outset on their continued responsibility for everything within their purview regardless of any decision to delegate.

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