Authority, Responsibility and Attribution

Why do so many leaders seemingly fail to grasp the concept that you can delegate authority but not responsibility?  Why do they consistently place the blame beyond their control? By taking these actions they declare themselves either victims or irrelevant.

The Story:

I was listening to media mogul Rupert Murdoch testify in hearings held by British parliament regarding the illegal communication intercepts that employees of one of his newspapers are alleged to have made.  The interviewer asked Mr. Murdoch repeatedly if he felt that he was responsible for the acts alleged and Mr. Murdoch consistently stated that he was not responsible, rather subordinate employees were.  This is a common theme of late, demonstrated every time we watch the news.  As the leader we can delegate authority but we can never delegate responsibility.  We are either responsible, hapless victims or irrelevant.  So why is this most basic of leadership tenets consistently violated?  The answer lies in attribution.

Attribution Theory

Attribution is an individual theory of motivation that holds important information for us as individuals and as leaders.  Attribution states that it is human nature for us to blame anything and everything outside of ourselves when things go wrong.  You can see this behavior very early on in our kids.  This tendency is more nature than learned behavior.  We hold in high esteem those who take responsibility.  Think about the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree.  Reportedly young George told his father,  “I cannot tell a lie…”.   More than not telling a lie, George was taking responsibility.  We hold leaders who take responsibility in high esteem.  We tell stories about them to our kids.  We expect our leaders to take responsibility as one of the perquisites of the job :).

One of the advantages of assuming responsibility is that we have now moved our failure to our sphere of influence and we can after-action what happened.  What did we do right?  What did we do wrong?  What can we do to improve our future performance?  If we fail to look in the mirror we doom ourselves to repeating our mistakes and fly the mental white flag of defeat and victimization.

The other part of attribution theory holds that when someone else has a performance failure it is in our nature to blame them.  We aren’t willing to cut them the same break that we are more than happy to give ourselves.  Beyond immediately assigning blame the theory would go on to say that we assume the poor performance was done with bad intent.  In keeping with a Theory X view of the world, we believe that the other person deliberately screwed the pooch.  As leaders we have to be aware of this tendency in ourselves and ensure that we don’t jump to conclusions.  We need to investigate fully before assigning blame.

In addition to investigating before reaching conclusions we need to be aware of the likelihood that our subordinate, according to theory, may be looking to assign blame outside of themselves.  In keeping with our responsibility to develop our people we need to educate our subordinates about attribution and ensure that they are looking in the mirror when appropriate.

Finally, as leaders we need to walk the talk.  I worked for a lot of bosses over the years who were happy to place blame on subordinate leaders, missing opportunities for improvement and damaging employee motivation and morale in the process.  We need to admit when we make mistakes, both to ourselves and others. Our subordinates need to see that the first place we look when things go wrong is in the mirror.  Lastly, we should never deny the responsibility that comes with the honor of leadership.

As always, THANK YOU for your service, and BE SAFE!

Please leave a comment.  How do you feel about those who dodge responsibility?  How can you use failures to improve future performance?



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