Holding Accountability Accountable

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” ~Sir Josiah Stamp

For a long time, I have wanted to examine and write on the subject of accountability as it is such a widely used term that it has arguably become cliche. As I researched the term and asked a few people about their views and experience with accountability in the public workplace, I was somewhat surprised by what I see as a disconnect between the value of accountability in principle and its value in practice.

The idea that government, organizations and individuals should be responsible (accountable) for their actions and the results of their actions has an intuitive and popular appeal and is actually the basis of our democratic form of government. It is taken as a certainty that behavior changes (improves) when one is accountable for one’s actions. Accountability creates a sense of ownership and investment in the outcomes and consequences of one’s words and actions. And accountability promotes a desire to improve and learn from one’s past words and actions. In other words, accountability is desirable because it enhances performance –of organizations and individuals.

Why then does is seem that there is a reluctance for people and organizations to embrace and accept accountability? Why is there so much need to call for accountability? Why is there such a need to assign accountability to others? What is the disconnect between the value of personal and organizational accountability and one’s aversion to it and reluctance to be accountable?

Several possible explanations surfaced during my research and interviews. First of all, there is a perception among public employees that accountability is synonymous with “blame”. “Who is accountable for ….?” is another way of saying “Who can I blame for this?” If accountability and blame are synonyms or if accountability is only sought when there are problems, is it any wonder why there is a reluctance to claim accountability when it becomes the equivalent of saying “Blame me!” The prevalent usage of accountability as a “gotcha” or “blame-game” tactic is a reflection of several workplace pathologies surrounding accountability.

Emphasis on the Negative. How often are employees asked to accept accountability for success? How often do we as leaders associate accountability with success? Isn’t it reasonable that if we expect employees to be accountable for the results and consequences of their words and actions, that such accountability should include recognition and reward for the positive results and consequences? Accountability is almost uniquely associated with negativity. When accountability assigns rewards and recognition rather than blame, we are all more willing to be accountable.

Ex Post Facto. Related to the pathology of negativity is the tendency to only think in terms of accountability after something has gone wrong. Accountability should be assigned before things go south and should be part of an on-going discussion with employees. To do otherwise makes the assignment of accountability synonymous with convening a firing squad and a random selection of targets.

Assignment to Others. Finger-pointing is another pathology of accountability practices. Accountability is an attribute that we want others to have. Rather than claim accountability ourselves, we have a tendency to go out of our way to assign it others. As leaders, if accountability is assigned to a subordinate, isn’t it also, by definition, assigned to the leader?

Lack of Accountable Methodology. The root of accountability is accounting. Accounting is necessarily governed by a set of rules, methods and accepted practices in order for the accounting to be credible, consistent and accurate. Our ad hoc accountability practices seldom are guided by clearly articulated rules, standards and methodologies which give a random and arbitrary perception to accountability. Is it then surprising that employees shy away from embracing accountability?

Accountability and Learning. One of the greatest potential benefits of accountability for individuals and organizations is the ability to learn from and improve past behavior. Ownership and honest assessment of performance form the basis of progression, realization of potential and learning. When accountability is used primarily to blame, punish and discipline it loses these valuable benefits.

As leaders and public administrators we are similarly subject to these pathologies of accountability when the principle is applied to us. As long as these pathologies persist and as long as leaders tolerate and perpetuate them, the full promise and advantages of organizational and personal accountability will remain unrealized. These pathologies are systemic and have been created by those at the top of organizational structures. They can only be eliminated or transformed by committed, courageous and tenacious leaders. Take the challenge to put away and disassociate gotchas, blame-games and finger-pointing from accountability within your realm of influence. The place to start is to begin making people accountable for all the successes and positive outcomes of their words and actions.

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