Accountability, Rank and Authority

We assume people who hold rank in a hierarchy are accountable. Rank is rarely the measure of accountability. Accountability in networks is more likely to be found with social constructed authority.

Accountability in hierarchy can be attenuated by the distance of people in positions of power from customers, employees or others stakeholders. Our expectation that the buck stops with those with highest rank increasingly disappoints us. Without trust, those in hierarchical positions can continue to operate and exercise power.

Authority is earned and lost in networks

However, authority is earned in networks. Authority is not given or imposed.  The status of authority as a social construct means accountability to the network is built in.  

Importantly, in a network authority will often attach to the most authoritative figure who is a part of the conversation, whether they seek it or not.  Nilofer Merchant described this phenomenon well recently highlighting that leaders who step up to engage in social conversations will be expected to act. The reach of this expectation will run to their supposed authority, well beyond their power or their rank. In a societal conversation, leaders may be expected to act on their own power and influence their industry or society. By chosing to bring their rank to the conversation, they start with an expectation and an authority. The challenge is what they do next.

An authority who fails to exercise their status will lose it. Any authority that becomes unreliable, malicious or inauthentic will quickly lose their status. Losing the authority that is the underpinning of influence and action, is the swift form of accountability found in network relationships that depend on trust.

As we lose our trust in hierarchies, we will go looking for trusted authorities in networks. Should they fail us, we will change them rapidly.

This post is the second in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The posts deal with:

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