Who’s Accountable and Who’s to Blame?

A lot of people talk about the need for accountability, but what does it mean? When people ask, “who are you accountable to?” What do they really want to know? It is tough to be accountable if we cannot define accountability. It can move from being tough to being confusing if there are multiple definitions for accountability. 

I define accountability as keeping the agreements we make. If you and I make an agreement for me to mow your grass for $50 per cutting you should expect me to mow your grass when it needs it, and I should expect $50 for each time I fully mow your yard. I am accountable for mowing. You are accountable for paying.  That seems simple, right?

So why do many leaders talk about the need for more accountability. Where is the problem? Some of the problem may result from confusion over what accountability means. For some, accountability may be seen in terms of consequences. When someone does something we consider a dereliction of duty accountability becomes a euphemism for wanting to see someone punished. “I want some accountability!” really means, “Why isn’t someone getting fired?” Are we trying to clarify accountability or assign blame?

Accountability can seem like a blame game if it is addressed after the fact. This can become most animated when the outcome involves some ostensibly egregious act of malfeasance. Whether within a small department or on an international stage, the accountability question in these instances seems more theatrical than rational.  How could someone allow this to happen? What went wrong? Who is accountable? Ever get caught acting in one of these scenarios? Frequently after the fact, accountability searches end up with much more said than done. In some cases there may be a search for the guilty and punishment of the innocent. It is seldom the playwright who is reckoned within these scenarios and often the actors following their script.

Establishing accountability is an overt act of leadership. Failure to have clarity in accountability is an overt leadership failure. For leader to establish accountability there must be a clear statement of what someone is being held accountable for. This should include both the outcomes being sought as well as the resources being assigned to deliver the outcome. Leaders who take the time to think through what they are asking for and what they are willing to pay stand a better chance of getting what they want. 

So what are the pitfalls? 

One pitfall is mixing what is wanted with how it needs to be accomplished. This is especially risky when the organization or individuals doing the work have not done the work before, do not do it routinely or are going about it in a new way. In these cases leaders need to consider how much latitude will be allowed for the team to learn. Leaders who try micromanaging work by adding requirements for how it must be done, increase the complexity of the work and therefore the likelihood of unintended consequences.

Another pitfall is not arriving at a shared understanding of the accountability. Leaders who delegate outcomes would benefit from briefing the assigned individual and then asking for that individual to brief the leader on what was understood. This brief and brief back allows the two to make adjustments and clarifications prior to resources being expended. At the same time, periodic check-ins can be established with progress milestones agreed upon. If the accountability is complex, the leader may ask for the brief back to occur a few days later after the delegate has had time allow time to process and organize his or her thoughts.

Another pitfall is not confronting reality on what can be expected. Leaders who add outcomes without considering the resources available fail to behave in a way that promotes the final outcomes they are seeking. Leaders do not need to prioritize work, but they need to get that prioritization done. Not prioritizing that work assigns decision rights based on what should be worked on when to the individual delegates. If the delegates choose to work on the wrong tasks first, the result may be a blame game.

One last scenario involves annual objectives. How many times have you written your annual objectives, put them in a drawer and then let them sit until the end of the year? When they are retrieved you end up having to somehow align what you did with what the objectives called for when written (with final objectives not completed until April). Personal objectives provide a repository for the portfolio of outcomes an employee is asked to deliver. Used as part of ongoing check and adjust meetings, the objectives can help leaders focus resources on the outcomes the organization needs. Viewing objective writing and year-end reviews as an event can lead to a missed opportunity to arrive at a shared understanding that could promote work being done on the right projects and tasks.

What is your process for assigning accountability? Is your annual objective setting an isolated event or is it part of an ongoing process to improve performance?


Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC