Delegation, responsibility and accountability – Lessons from parenting

Last week we had our parent-teacher conference at our seven year old daughter’s school.  It was the usual interesting review of her current outputs and testing results and there are certainly no concerns from either side.  There was however, one comment that has stuck with me over the past week, and that was a compliment about our attitude towards personal responsibility.  I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it essentially amounted to the fact that we don’t do everything for her.  Even when it’s not the easiest route, we let her take age appropriate responsibility and accountability for herself and her choices and that is resulting in a little girl who is independent, confident and makes good choices.

Prompted by this observation, I’ve reflected on the struggle that I see often, both in business and life, to delegate effectively.  I’m going to illustrate my point with a parenting based example, however the thinking is just as applicable to any business situation.

Little Miss arrives home from school daily with a reader and other simple activities that should take no more than 20 minutes.  The ideal outcome is that the homework gets completed before bedtime without fuss, whining, nagging or conflict.  The reality however, is that there are a number of things that she would much rather be doing with her afternoon than homework, and as a working mother I am not actually there to exert authority.  In this situation, the likelihood of the ideal outcome is directly related to the level of responsibility that she feels and her ownership of the outcome.

Note that accountability is the ability to be able to account for the situation.  The accountable party is the one person that accepts that they have the obligation to report, explain or justify what happened.  Responsibility is the ability to be able to respond to the situation.  One or more people who have the power to control or manage what happens.

In many households, the way homework plays out is the imposition of a set of consequences.  You must do your homework before X; you will not be allowed Y unless it’s done, etc. etc.  The parent or caregiver assumes full responsibility for getting the homework done, and more than that they also take on the accountability (as evidenced by the number of notes and explanations that I used to receive as a teacher from parents accounting for why the homework was not complete.)

Now this is great way to create action if you have the authority to enforce consequences that have the power to facilitate the desired behaviour, but in the business world (as in our household), this is not necessarily the case.  The problem in our house, is that off-the-charts level of stubbornness (yes it’s genetic) means that our children would rather accept whatever consequences we as caregivers can dish out retaining their power to choose their behaviour, than to give in and avoid the consequence.  What inevitably happens is a good old Mexican standoff with neither party willing to back down, resulting in no one winning and everyone losing.

When we first encountered the homework phenomenon, I sat back and thought about how we could set Little Miss up for success, avoiding the conflict and nagging that was likely to ensue.  Although I didn’t consider it at the time, these questions directly relate to the delegation of responsibility and accountability for an outcome, in this case, the completed homework.

  1. Who has the power to control and manage what happens?
    The answer is, to some extent both of us.  Only she can physically complete the task and thus owns the majority of the responsibility, however, I can set clear expectations and manage the conditions under which the homework can occur.  This places some of the responsibility on me and the other caregivers.
  2. Where does the buck stop? Who will report or explain the outcome?
    The answer here, although it may not seem natural to say so, is actually her.  She is the only one that has to front up to her teacher and explain the outcome.  She is the one who will deal with the consequence imposed at that point.

So with clarity there, the next question is what conditions I can set to facilitate the ideal outcome?

It always start with communicating clear expectations across a number of contributing factors…

  • The outcome – Homework is important and should be completed.
  • The boundaries – The only element that is able to be completed after dinner is reading, and your light will be switched off at the usual time, there is no staying up late.
  • The support available – We are here to help if you need it, but you will need to ask.
  • The management system – We will not nag you to get it done, but we will give you one reminder (and only one) if we have not seen it before we start preparing dinner.
  • The responsibility – It is your responsibility to plan your time and get it completed.
  • The accountability – If for whatever reason, it doesn’t get done, you will need to explain yourself to your teacher. There will be no notes from us.
  • The measure of success – We would like to see the completed work if you would like to share it. If homework completion becomes a problem, then we will have to reassess your afternoon activities.

Having set the conditions to enable the desired outcome and delegated the responsibility and accountability, we then follow through.  We don’t interfere in ‘how’ it gets done, we don’t pass judgement or circumvent the process.  We don’t undermine the set expectations.  She asks for help when she needs it and feels empowered to manage her own time and methodology.  She then shares her outputs.

The result…  There is no fuss, nagging, whining, or conflict about homework in our house.  The majority of the time, it gets done, and if it doesn’t she explains herself to her teacher and deals with the consequence.  In summary, we have achieved our desired outcome.

I believe that there is a real lesson here for life or business.  When you are considering delegating either responsibility or accountability for an activity (or being delegated to), there are three quick actions that will set you (and your team) up for success.

  1. Ask, who has the power to control and manage what happens?
    Who is responsible and what actions do they need to take?
  2. Ask, where does the buck stop?
    Who will report or explain the outcome?  Who will be held accountable to what authority?
  3. Then, when you’re ready, set and communicate clear expectations:
  • The expected outcome.
  • The boundaries and limitations under which the activity must occur.
  • The availability of support.
  • The management system / feedback loops that are in place.
  • The responsible party.
  • The accountable party.
  • The measure of success.

Of course, the true test will be when our younger child Mr Rule Breaker, starts school!  Will the same method of delegation work with him?  Fingers crossed!

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