Imagine if you could not rely on anyone to do anything they said they would or were expected to do – it’s not hard to see how quickly chaos follows in that scenario. Without accountability, coordinated activities become difficult at best, and impossible at worst. With that in mind, there are three critical issues that we need to address to make progress with accountability:
Accountability is complex, fuzzy, and confusing. One of the biggest challenges is that it means different things to different people – often in the same organization, and even in the same team. This leads to what has been called ‘multiple accountabilities disorder’. Part of the issue is that there is a popular fallacy in organizations that holding people accountable for their actions is an effective means to control behavioral outcomes.
However, research shows that accountability-inducing practices are not uniformly effective, because the way they are understood and adopted varies by individual. I’m sure we’ve all experienced scenarios in which team members have been exposed to the same situation, but hold quite different expectations about their accountability within it. This discrepancy exists because individual interpretations of external situations and systems are subjective, and so differ from person to person.
Added to this is a time-related factor. The subjective experience of being accountable is different from the subjective retrospective evaluation of accountability that takes place after the event in traditional approaches to accountability, such as performance reviews. And to top it all off, there’s a problem with language, as words like ‘accountability’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘ownership’ are so often used interchangeably. Combine this with the wild variances of subjective individual interpretation, and it’s not surprising that there’s so much confusion about what accountability really means and looks like.
Accountability is often only asked for once things have gone wrong – the conversations come too late, people are defensive, and it can feel hard to do them well. If I were to invite you to a meeting so that we could have an accountability conversation, my guess is that it wouldn’t be top on your list of ‘favorite things to do today. And that’s because accountability has had a bad rap; if it were an A-list celebrity, accountability would need to fire its agent.
We use accountability as a stick to ‘punish’ people when situations have gone wrong. It’s often reactive and usually comes when the situation is no longer retrievable – the classic move of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. And often, ‘holding people to account’ is done from a place of wanting to name, shame, and apportion blame. Just the language we use tells a lot about the motivation and energy of the action.
Because of this, accountability conversations feel punitive; it’s like we’re telling someone off and pointing out what they’ve not done, where they’ve not delivered, and, ultimately, how they’re not good enough. And usually, this is done at a time when it’s too late for them to do anything about it anyway. Is it any wonder these conversations are met with defensiveness, and feel so hard to do?
When it comes to accountability, context matters. A variety of ‘macro’ factors, such as team culture, conflicting pressures, multiple demands, and the specific characteristics of sources of accountability can positively or negatively influence individual accountability. The problem is that because it feels so uncomfortable, leaders are unsure how to embed accountability into the culture of their teams and the organization so that it becomes a normal part of how work gets done. Added to this, employees often face numerous, conflicting accountability requirements through matrix reporting structures and multiple strategic agendas. Public administration research has found that such conflicts lead to poor decision-making and performance.
These three issues – confusion, concern, and context – are why we need to create a new understanding of accountability that moves it from a means to punish people to a tool that can help set us up for success. This reset of accountability requires a shift in mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors so that we can confidently role model, coach, and create contexts and cultures that support accountability.
The good news is that resetting accountability doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive, or time-consuming. Small shifts in mindsets, attitudes, and leader and team practices can have a big impact on accountability, learning, progress, and performance. Here’s what we need to do:
1) We need to let go of the idea that accountability is ‘hard’, ‘tricky’, or requires ‘courageous’ conversations.
We often hear about the need for ‘courageous conversations’ in workplaces. Rather than being conversations in which we are vulnerable (the original meaning of the term, as used in Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead), I find this is often code for accountability conversations. In my experience, when leaders listen to the right voices and coach for accountability, there is a clarity to these discussions that removes the need for them to be ‘courageous’
2) We need to stop thinking of accountability as a ‘nice-to-have’ and understand that it is the foundation for higher performance and engagement from both individuals and teams.
Workplace researcher Cy Wakeman has found that, on average, employees spend two-and-a-half hours each day engaged in workplace drama, of which 23% is due to lack of accountability. Despite many organizations focusing on employee engagement as a key driver for performance, Wakeman’s research shows that it is accountability rather than engagement that drives business success.
3) We each need to recognize and own our role in the current situation and be prepared to ‘show up’ differently to move it forward.
Accountability issues don’t happen on their own – they are created by people. Whether you’re asking for accountability and not receiving what you believe you need or being asked for it in a way or at a scale that you feel is not appropriate, the first accountability to step into is your role and responsibility in the current situation. What is yours to own?
Edited extract from Own It! Honouring and Amplifying Accountability (Grammar Factory, $24.95) by Dr. Paige Williams.
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