Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Authority and Responsibility

I had a conversation the other day with a colleague of mine in the standards development arena talking about Authority and Responsibility.  The essence of the discussion (argument?) was my propensity to use the phrase “the quality manager has the authority and responsibility…” and her position that the phrase sounds nice but is both pedantic and redundant.  Her view was that Authority and Responsibility are two parts of the same thing.

I disagree.

Having authority is something that is granted by another.  In the Quality sense an organization can be authorized to provide certain services such as doing accreditation audits or certification audits.   On a corporate level an employer or supervisor can include within a job description the authority to make certain decisions about hazards and risk management or decisions about hiring or firing people at a certain level.  On  a professional level, authority to perform is usually based on have been granted to licence to practice.  On a personal level a person who goes out and gets a drivers licence has the authority to drive a car. 

On the other hand being given a responsibility is the same as being charged with a duty or task.  There is an expectation that when an if there is a task to be done,  the person given responsibility is the person who is expected to make sure it is done, either by themselves or somebody else. 

You can ask a direct question, “Who was responsible to get that done?” and you should be able to get a finger point at “him”. 

Having authority is about being given the licence to perform.  Having responsibility is about being charged with the duty to perform.

And to complete the argument, being given both the authority and the responsibility says that the person has both the permission to perform in general but also is charged with the duty to perform certain specific tasks or duties. 

Think about James Bond who was authorized as a MI-6 agent with “licence to kill”.  In the different situations he had the responsibility of stopping or killing Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, and on and on and on.  And as M pointed out in Casino Royale, if he killed someone that was not on his responsibility list, while he might have a licence to kill, he could lose his licence and be charged with a crime.  Having a licence to kill doesn't mean he could kill willy-nilly. 

Now to be fair to my colleague, in many situations, the basis of granting authority can be pretty tenuous.  In the best of circumstances it is based upon competency and achievement, like being accredited to 17011, or receiving a licence to practice a profession.  Other times it is an appointed authority by government or an employer.  Sometimes it is really unclear upon what criteria someone was given authority.  And unfortunately, there are lots of employers who are really ambiguous about what responsibilities are being granted and under what conditions. 

In my mind, one of the key differences between a Quality based organization and another based on “gut and intuition”, is that in the former people know who has authority and who does not and more importantly what each person is responsible for, while the latter, those roles are often left ambiguous or unstated.  In the long run, one has an increased likelihood for success, while the other, not so much.
So to my friend, let me say I may be pedantic, but I am not redundant.   
Being granted Authority and being given Responsibility are different.

PS:  Not to belabor the point, but if an organization offers to perform cut-rate certification or accreditation, be very suspicious.  Anybody can do an assessment, but not necessarily well.  And more to the point, they probably do not have the authority to provide a valid ISO certificate that would be recognized by anyone as an achievement.  Unfortunately, even in Quality we still have to follow “buyer beware”.

Registrations for our October Quality Conference in Vancouver are starting to pour in.  This week we have lined up three new topics:
  • Sources of Error in Pathology
  • Assessing Competency in the Medical Laboratory
  • Workplace stress and its impact on Quality.
Register at:  


  1. I can understand your colleague's confusion. Responsibility and authority should go hand in hand. However, anyone who has been in a position that has responsibility with little or no authority quickly sees the difference.

    Doesn't it seem that most people want more authority and less responsibility?

    When someone has authority and little or no responsibility the results can be disastrous.

  2. I agree totally.
    Responsibility without Authority makes you vulnerable.
    Authority without Responsibility makes you impotent.

    Neither is a very good place.

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