Accountability is broken

The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.

— John Foster Dulles

Dulles is highlighting an important point. Not resolving issues and concerns is bad for business and having the same problem year-on-year shows a lack of accountability around that issue. This is not a unique problem.

A workplace accountability study by Partners in Leadership revealed that 82% of correspondents said that they have limited to no ability to hold others accountable; in this same study, 91% of correspondents ranked accountability highly among the company’s developmental needs.

Similar studies by the American Management Association and McKinsey & Company echo this, showing the negative impact of accountability, or a lack thereof, in the ability of companies to execute on strategic plans, increase revenue and remain profitable.

So what is accountability? To be accountable is to be responsible for something, to justify your actions/choices, to be obliged to answer to someone else (normally someone of higher authority) – this doesn’t sound particularly motivating. The same could be said of its synonyms: responsibility, liability, culpability, answerability, etc.

We often talk about accountability as if it were this magical cure all – but the word itself conjures up images of being the person everyone points to when things go wrong.

By telling others we are going to hold them accountable, we are telling them that they have to prove they were the right choice for the task, that they will be obliged to rectify or make up for any issues that may arise and that they will have to justify their actions and choices to someone of higher authority than they.

This is disempowering.

It puts in place a power dynamic that isn’t conducive to collaboration and that places all the responsibility on someone else. Add to this the fact that holding someone accountable is just as stressful as being held accountable and you have a workplace where both manager and employee are unnecessarily stressed.

In the next Perspectives I’ll dig into solutions for this problem but for the time being I’ll leave you with this:
Think about how you are holding others accountable, during meetings, performance reviews, feedback sessions on projects, etc. Ask yourself if you are shackling your employees or if you are creating an opportunity for growth and learning; ask yourself if you are holding different people accountable in different ways; and look for any patterns in how you hold others accountable, take note of them and investigate their impacts.

Holding someone accountable is just as stressful as being held accountable, but stress is not helpful.