Articles

Is it ever Appropriate to remove Decision-Making authority or take back Control?

November 15, 2016 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

authoirityIn the Legitimate Leadership framework, empowerment requires a leader to go beyond asking people for their opinions, listening to them, and only then deciding. Empowerment means letting people decide and living with their decision even if it is contrary to the decision that the leader would have made.

The degree to which a person is empowered therefore simply equates to the number and types of decisions that the person is now making, independently of their boss, which they weren’t making previously. Conversely, the degree to which a person is being disempowered can be gauged from the number and type of decisions that the person was taking but which have subsequently been taken away from them.

On the assumption that empowerment is “good” and disempowerment is “bad”, it is useful to consider whether it is ever appropriate to remove decision-making authority because to do so is seemingly disempowering.

At Legitimate Leadership, we believe that taking away or reducing people’s decision-making authority is generally not a good move for the following reasons:

  • While it is very easy to remove authority/take back control, it is not nearly so easy to reinstate it again. For example, an Operations Manager took back authorisation for overtime and reduced overtime expenditure by 90%. 18 months later, however, he was still authorising over time. The question arises as to whether this is really what he should be spending his time doing. Surely there are more strategic issues that he should be giving his time and attention to …?
  • The person who makes the decision is both accountable for it and the one who feels accountable/has a sense of ownership for it. When decision-making authority is taken away, so is a sense of responsibility or ownership for the decision. In due course ownership is vested too high up in the hierarchy with a concomitant lack of responsibility and accountability lower down. Guess who feel stressed and overwhelmed and who feels disenfranchised and demotivated?
  • When authority is taken away there is a tendency to take authority away from everyone, not only the few who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy or not worthy of the trust that has been  given to them. The result of this so-called “collective bollocking”, as opposed to holding those to account who have abused the authority given to them, is that nobody takes accountability. This is because control and accountability are mutually exclusive. You can have control or accountability, but you can’t have both.

Nevertheless there are definitely occasions when the removal of decision-making authority, as long as it is temporary rather than permanent and as long as it is done by those higher in the line of command rather than by support functions, is not only appropriate but highly effective as a leadership action. It all depends however on the intent or the “why” behind the removal of authority.

Firstly, it is appropriate to remove authority when the authority has been handed over prematurely. That is, when it was assumed that the person was ready from an ability point of view and that this in fact was not the case. Then it is appropriate to take back the decision-making authority until such time, as a result of further training and coaching, as the person is competent to operate independently.

Secondly, it is appropriate to remove authority as a means to “watch the game” of those making the decisions in order to test the quality of judgement that they are exercising with respect to an issue. Depending on what is found from “ watching the game”, this may lead to a resetting of the standard before reinstating the authority again to where it was before, or incrementally releasing authority to the appropriate people. Done well, this leadership action can serve to positively “shock” people out of a groove or habituated way of behaving and recalibrate them to a higher standard. Ironically, such action by leaders can also stimulate growth in people because it forces people to challenge the status quo and to rethink their decisions.

Both removing authority to increase a person’s ability to make a better decision or to “watch the game” and to learn from doing so is of course fundamentally different from removing authority to manage or control people. The former is wholly consistent with the Legitimate Leadership framework; the latter is not.

Wendy Lambourne
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