In my 28-year career in leadership and team coaching I have enjoyed and struggled with supporting organizations in implementing accountability practices. The struggle is partly rooted in the power of fears for consequences, in the power of mistaken beliefs, and in the power of ingrained practices that are harming accountability more than they are helping. I presented on this topic at the Minnesota Project Management Institute, the Rochester Community Technical College, the Southern Minnesota APICS chapter, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Continuing Legal Education, Hennepin County, and many more organizations and associations from which I’d like to share some of my reflections on accountability. I trust they will help you think critically about what accountability is and is not, reflect on how to act accountably, and decide how to best hold others accountable in a way that aids personal learning and company-wide improvement.
Here are some of my reflections on accountability:
- Talk is meaningless chatter when no one is held accountable.
- Rationalizing and justifying are human tendencies resulting from the need for self-protection. They stand in the way of acting accountable.
- Ticking off a box with procedures and saying “I’m sorry” do not constitute examples of acting accountable.
- When people are afraid to speak because they anticipate punishment, there is no limit to the risks and problems they are unwilling to disclose.
- Vague expectations and unclear boundaries of responsibility and authority make it impossible to hold people accountable.
- Attitudes such as Wait and See, Tell me what to do, It’s not my job, and Cover Your Tail are crippling in your quest to increase accountability.
- Punishment and blame teach employees that they better not take risks, they better not make mistakes, and more so: better don’t get caught and cover your …
- The future is uncertain and you can’t change the past. You can however learn from past experiences if, and only if, blame and punishment make room for detailed reviews and true learning.
- Many organizations and their people suffer from a habit of victimization resulting from a belief that circumstances and other people prevent them from achieving their goals.
- Blame and fault-finding slam the door in the face of a culture and practice of accountability.
- Characters such as the gossiper, the sugar coater, the cover-up artist, the quitter, the blamer, and the sand-bagger all hamper accountability (Greg Bustin in his 2014 book on accountability.)
- If all you measure, monitor, and reward are results, your staff will be tempted to bend the rules and to avoid accountability for mistakes and failure.
- You can do yourself and your company a huge service by stepping outside of your safety tent and challenging yourself and others on any lack of accountability.
- Trusting that some of these reflections are meaningful for your specific context I’d like to close with a quote from American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler:
“The illiterate of the future are not those who cannot read or write.
They are those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”