18 April 2020

Responsive Orgs: Lens 2 – Distributed Authority

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • Our Model for Responsiveness and the 4 lenses (layers) that define responsive organizations
  • 2nd roundtable in our series on responsiveness – focusing on distributed authority
  • 3 elements to build trust in an organization
  • Best ideas and examples from our leader roundtables

The second layer of our Model for Responsiveness is DISTRIBUTED AUTHORITY. Our research indicates that responsive organizations empower employees to make decisions affecting their work, which enables collaboration and effective responses to market needs.

In this roundtable, we gathered a diverse group of global leaders for a discussion around the second layer in the Responsive Organization model.

Figure 1: A Model for Responsivity | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Distributed Authority happens when organizations change the way their authority structures work. Instead of holding decision-making centrally (as most organization in the last 100 years are apt to do), authority to make decisions is spread throughout the organization, in all functions, and in all levels. Responsive organizations understand that, in order to respond to external pressures, people at the edges of the organization are often better equipped to make educated decisions about how to get things done.

3 areas of distributed authority

Figure 2: Behaviors for Building Distributed Authority | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Distributed authority mindmap

Distributed authority roundtable video recap

Roundtable summary & leader advice

In the following sections, we expound on these 3 areas and highlight the good advice we heard at the roundtable.

Decision-making rights

Decision-making rights is the control employees have about how they execute their role or their responsibilities. We found that decision-making rights vary greatly by organization, manager, level, and sometimes even industry.

Advice from leaders:
  • Defer to expertise, not title. During crisis, there is often an unconscious “because I said so” attitude from managers. We get it. Lots of people feel powerless and are looking to salvage some sense of order. However, one of the best pieces of advice shared was that organizations should default to expertise, not title. Let the person with the most information make the decision on the thing.
  • Implement decision-making logs. One leader said that her senior leaders (C-suite) had instituted a process wherein they published the decisions they made and the reasons for those decisions. We like this idea for a couple of reasons. First, it establishes a level of transparency that we think is healthy during a crisis and helps everyone become comfortable with those decisions. Secondly, it’s an excellent learning tool. Not only are the decisions public, but the reasons why those decisions were made are also public, teaching employees the subtle art of decision-making.
  • Throw out the 9-5. We have mentioned this in previous roundtable readouts, but it bears repeating. The world has gone mad. Employees are dealing with children and/or parents, lack of schedule, feelings of isolation, and a host of other challenges. This is an excellent opportunity for organizations to determine what’s important and what is not. Is it important that an employee is sitting at their desk and available for 8 hours straight everyday? Are the processes that have been followed for years really necessary? Or is the fact that work is actually getting done and deadlines are being met more important?

Diverse & engaged teams

The power of diverse thinking and inclusivity has been well-documented over the years, and not surprisingly, our responsive organization research backs that up. We know that organizations with diverse thought and inclusive behaviors do better – from higher engagement scores to more innovation – than their less inclusive-minded counterparts. We also know that diverse thought and inclusive behavior leads to more responsive organizations – allow them to react more quickly to external threats and opportunities.

Advice from leaders:
  • Take advantage of the sense of humanness happening right now. Leaders mentioned that there is now more inclusivity and shared responsibility to carry the load and help each other out. Some leaders mentioned they had seen teams pull in people who are relevant, but not central, to disperse feelings of isolation. They also mentioned the need of leaders to be open and vulnerable about what they didn’t know so that others felt safe to do so as well.
  • Leaders, create opportunities for contribution. Leaders mentioned ideas to help employees feel included – particularly those who may be more introverted and less likely to speak up. Ideas included: sending detailed agendas, complete with challenges to be discussed and decisions to be made, so that everyone had an opportunity to think about how they could contribute; being aware of those not actively participating in discussions, and encouraging them, either with back channel communication, or gentle verbal prompts, to share their ideas; establishing that there are no bad ideas; emphasizing that we’re all in this together and working to solve the same challenges.
  • Make decisions together. As fairly radical changes are being made to structure, work environment, communication patterns, and work itself, leaders in the roundtable encouraged other leaders to make as many decisions as possible together as teams. Things such as asking for agenda items, asking for input on meeting cadence, duration, ideas for getting the work done, and the like, can go a long way to build trust and buy in.
  • Understand nuances in team engagement. With the large number of people working remotely, it’s worth paying attention to how teams are maintaining their engagement at this time. As such, it’s important that leaders maintain an open mind to varying levels of engagement that may point to different needs across teams. So in addition to providing resources to individual people, organizations should consider providing resources to teams like promoting frequent check-ins, managing collective anxiety, and showing empathy toward one another.
  • Scale up tools. To keep a close pulse on engagement, leaders in our roundtable mentioned that organizations need to amplify and scale up tools, especially for middle-managers so they can understand team engagement real-time. We heard that this is a particular area of opportunity, especially for the healthcare industry because it tends to lag behind in engagement tools and resources at the mid-management level.


Organizations that distribute authority get more Collaboration (and should encourage it). More minds are better than one – and organizations are able to gather insights across different areas or business functions when authority is distributed.

Cross-functional teams are enabled to solve challenges or take advantage of opportunities at the edge of the organization rather than waiting for central decision-makers to either notice the challenge or prioritize it. Collaboration also builds employee networks, which in turn increases the flow of knowledge around the organization, allowing employees more ready access to expertise.

Advice from leaders:
  • Be clear on expectations. Distributed authority does not mean that organizations operate in chaos. Organizations should be clear on expectations and desired outcomes. For teams, either formal or informal, expectations can act as a unifying force that help to foster communication and break down barriers
  • Look for stumbling blocks. As organizations have focused on efficiency and productivity over the past 100 years, they’ve also standardized ways of doing things that often stand in the way of collaboration. To enable employees to exercise their authority, organizations should look for those things that may keep employees from sharing information with each other and helping each other on projects.
  • Embrace self-driven teams. Allowing greater fluidity in how teams operate may help address some of the current engagement challenges people face today. For example, people in autonomous or self-driven teams can volunteer to combine different skills or talents to address a particular immediate need and maximize their impact. They can also exercise autonomy as a team by deciding priorities to work on each day and how they will divvy up tasks to accomplish them.
  • Think in terms of MVP deliverables. A minimum viable product (MVP) or deliverable is a version of the deliverable that allows a team to collect the maximum amount of value with the least amount of effort. Particularly now, organizations can begin to think in terms of MVP and consistent iteration instead of holding a deliverable until it is nigh on perfect. This encourages innovation and collaboration, but also helps employees focus on what is value-add.
  • Default to the strategy. In helping employees determine what’s important, consistently reiterate the end goal or strategy. Ask them to ask themselves, “how is what I’m doing related to the end goal or strategy?”
  • Stand up meetings. While many teams are not currently collocated, one leader said that they still have a daily standup meeting. The meeting allows all members to check in with each other, to raise questions or concerns, and to state what they will be working on. This requires each team member to come to that meeting already having thought about the value-add activities they would be accomplishing during the day. It was also a nice opportunity to connect on a human level.
  • Focus internally. A few leaders mentioned that they are using this time to actively work on their internal structures and norms. Employees and managers are finding internal projects that have been on the back burner for years, but once complete, will increase the abilities of the organization. Thus, not all value-add activities should be externally focused; sometimes the best thing employees can focus on are internal.

To sum up

Overall, our roundtable conversations acknowledged the important role that distributing decision-making has on enabling the organization to effectively and efficiently respond to external needs.  There was also a sense of urgency around the need for greater clarity, communication, and expectations around decisions, especially within the current remote working context.

A special thanks for all the leaders who joined our second roundtable. Thank you for your willingness to share ideas and insights – it makes our research that much better!

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.


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