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What Does It Really Mean To Hold People Accountable?

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Most people think they know what accountability means and have strong opinions on the topic. We hear enough about it on the news – Congress wants to hold rogue politicians and reckless financial intuitions accountable, investors want to have the greedy executives accountable, and managers want to hold underperforming employees accountable. Demands for accountability abound, but what does holding an entity or a person accountable really mean? That people need to take on more responsibilities? That more people need to have decision-making authority? That more and/or faster decisions need to be made? Or that there should be more swift and severe consequences (i.e., more people need to get fired for not performing)?


We began to question our understanding of accountability. We decided to do some research and “think it through”, and have come to two conclusions. First, no one has a clear, consistent definition of accountability. Many talk a good game, but few have cracked the accountability code. Our second conclusion is that the call for more accountability is often an unspoken desire for more consequences (i.e., the reward for achievement and punishment for failure).


In this Organizational Realities blog, we will discuss what we think about accountability, how it relates to responsibility, and give our view of what this means for you as an employee or manager.


What is Accountability?

When shame-faced politicians, greedy bankers, or celebrity executives say, “I take complete accountability for my actions” at their mea culpa, please-forgive-me press conferences, we generally accept these types of statements as apologies (even when paired with “voluntary” resignations). Is this how someone is held accountable? Accountability is more than a phrase that is part of a scripted apology. Accountability, quite literally, is the ability to account for one’s actions.


So now that the high-level definition is out of the way let’s fully define and lay out the true meaning of the term, starting with what needs to be in place for accountability to exist:


  1. Clear Goals Must Be Established: Quantifiable objectives should be defined, documented, and communicated.

  2. Adequate Resources and Authority Must Be Granted: Sufficient resources (e.g., financial, technical, and human), control, and influence must be available.

  3. Specific Consequences Must Be Predetermined: Outcomes for success and failure are established, documented, and communicated.

If any of the above are not satisfied, employees are within their rights to question the assignment and address the gaps before proceeding. We realize this is a strong statement, but perfectly legitimate if they are to be accountable.


Let’s explore each one in a little more detail.


1. Establishing Clear Goals

Ambiguity regarding desired outcomes for a given project must be eliminated, and great care is taken to ensure all involved share the same definition of success. It does not matter who the leader is; projects that begin without a clear, shared picture of the end goal(s) are doomed to failure. Project goals should be Relevant, Realistic, and Reportable.


  • Relevant – goals are aligned with overarching business objectives.

  • Realistic – attainable given the known constraints

  • Reportable – performance against the critical success metric(s) can be objectively quantified and communicated.


"It does not matter who the leader is; projects that begin without a clear, shared picture of the end goal(s) are doomed to failure."


When engaging with clients, we often get pushback on the “reportable” requirement for clear goal setting. Several reasons for not measuring and reporting progress and success are offered, including “success will be self-evident”, “it is too difficult to measure”, “we don’t have the resources or ability” or, our personal favorite, “it can’t be measured.” In such cases, we explain that the goals, whether intermediate or final, are required to keep everyone on track throughout the project and to allow for course correction as necessary. Clear reportable goals are not a luxury; rather, they are a necessity. In effect, we require that the “count” is included in accountability.


2. Granting Adequate Resources and Authority

It sounds absurd for a manager to demand action from an employee while preventing the employee from performing the action. Unfortunately, managers frequently do this, often without even knowing it. Do any of these look familiar? Expecting an employee to:

  • Procure services with an inadequate budget.

  • Deploy technology with no IT support.

  • Manage people having had adequate management training or support.

  • Improve efficiency without access to necessary data or metrics.

  • Take the lead on a project while being micromanaged.

Once again, these are all examples of projects doomed to fail. The direct report is never really truly accountable, as he does not have the resources or authority to complete the task in the first place.


The employee may physically complete the work, but if the manager controls the decisions/resources, the manager is still the one accountable. The manager is at fault when such projects fail, not the direct report. Or stated more eloquently, "When the manager is pulling the strings, he can’t blame the puppet for bad performance."


"When the manager is pulling the strings, he can’t blame the puppet for a bad performance."


Before accepting accountability for a project or a task, employees should ensure that they have the following:


  • Adequate resources (financial, technical, and human) assigned to get the job done.

  • The personal capability (ability, skill, and knowledge) to perform the task.

  • The authority to make decisions and expend resources.

  • Latitude to execute their own ideas and methods.

  • Access to the required stakeholders, customers, and decision-makers.


If any of the above are not satisfied, you cannot truly be accountable for the project. You must revisit the project with your manager to address the obvious shortcomings.


Managers who have assigned projects to a direct report must ensure the employee has the wherewithal to get it done or assign it to someone with the appropriate authority, resources, and ability.


3. Predetermining Consequences

When people demand more accountability, we find this is often a call for stronger and more consistently applied consequences. “Consequences” are the results – in most cases, the rewards or punishment – of the action taken. Direct reports must know what these results will be when they do or do not achieve their goals. If there are no consequences for poor or good performance or the employee is unaware of them, then a key motivator is absent.


Why are consequences so often the missing link in establishing accountability? Managers may not give the consequences enough thought, may not be creative about how they can incent or redirect behavior, and may not communicate them clearly if they exist. Moreover, many managers complain that they do not have the latitude to either bestow rewards or reprimand failure. Often, the managers are unaware of what they can do. Here are some options:

CareerCareer


Informal

Formal

Meets or Exceeds Goal/ Expectation

  • Personal Praise

  • Public Recognition

  • Stretch Development Assignment

  • Expanded Responsibilities

  • Celebration

  • Time Off

  • Bonus Increase

  • Salary Increase

  • Promotion

  • Career Development Coaching*

  • Company Reward Points

  • Merchandise

Does Not Meet Goal/Expectations

  • Ignore Failure

  • Verbal Feedback

  • Verbal Reprimand

  • Reassignment Of Responsibilities

  • Remedial Training

  • Closer Supervision

  • Coaching*

  • Written Reprimand

  • Disciplinary Action

  • Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

  • Bonus Reduction

  • Reassignment

  • Suspension

  • Demotion

  • Termination


Bonuses and stock awards are clearly good motivators when tied to performance. However, penalizing poor behaviors by taking something away (privileges, awards, titles, etc.) is not so easy. Companies are often reluctant to terminate or reassign those who have failed.


When it comes time to deliver the consequences, managers often avoid the conflict caused by addressing poor performance. They may be reluctant to praise positive behavior, fearing it will lead to employee complacency. This behavior is one we do not understand and have a hard time accepting. Communicating and delivering consequences (both positive and negative) is an essential part of a manager’s job. If planned and positioned appropriately, it does not have to be a negative or anxiety-inducing chore for all involved. It will deliver the final element of accountability. Again, remember to plan out and communicate the consequences upfront, and remember these basic principles:


  • Suitability: The consequences (positive or negative) must be commensurate with the goal difficulty

  • Immediacy: The consequence should promptly follow the outcome

  • Certainty: Employees must know that the agreed-upon consequences will follow the actions

Take care to avoid the “we learned from it and moved on” attitude expressed by employees when projects fail miserably. This is an all-too-common and inappropriate reaction. For consequences to be an effective part of building accountability, there must be consistency in how they are delivered over time and across employees. Furthermore, consequences should be explicitly stated, not implied or inferred.


Accountable Versus Responsible

Most who have tried to fill out or follow a RACI diagram (management tool that describes tasks in terms of Responsible-Accountable-Consulted-Informed) know the frustrating, unanswerable discussion that can ensue about who is accountable versus responsible. In reality, there is little difference between these words. Look in a dictionary; the definitions are the same. These words are used interchangeably, and one is almost always used to define the other. So, for all who have struggled with RACI (and we fall in that category), arguing if you are responsible for something, you are also accountable, and if you are accountable, then it seems like you are in some ways responsibleMerriam-Webster', then you are RIGHT!



Responsible

Accountable

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

​Liable to be called on to account as the primary cause. Marked by or involving responsibility or accountability

An obligation or willingness to accept responsibility to account for ones's actions

The Free Dictionary

Liable to be required to give account, as of one's action or of the discharge of a duty or trust. Involving personal accountability or ability to act without guidance or superior authority

Responsible to some or for some action; answerable


RACI has been around since the 1970s relatively unchanged (and keep in mind this was the decade that gave us Sea Monkeys and mood rings), so we propose making some upgrades to this otherwise useful task management tool. First, reframe the tool as an “Accountability Matrix.” Use it to show the different types of participation that are needed to complete a task, all of which contribute to the overall accountability. That means dropping “Accountable” from the categories and going with “Responsible.” Second, when you feel the urge to assign responsibility to people at different levels for the same task, the appropriate way to deal with this is to break the task into sub-tasks and assign it accordingly. The higher-level tasks will have “R” for the higher-level people who are “responsible” for a whole set of tasks (but maybe not actually, physically DOING the tasks). The lower-level tasks will still have “R’s” for the lower-level folks who are the “doers” for that sub-task. Either way, only one category is needed.


Next, we propose adding a classification that signifies the one who sets the goals, gives the authority, and establishes the consequences. This person should be the “Driver” – the person in the organizational chain of command with the power to demand that action be taken, the one who will apportion the responsibility. Aside from clearing up the accountability-responsibility confusion, this change facilitates discussing what accountability entails. Each time the D for Driver is assigned to a task, it serves as a reminder that establishing goals, authority, and consequences are required for the Driver to fulfill their part in the task. So, that leaves us with a DRCI, not quite as smooth as “RACI”, so we suggest calling it an “Accountability Matrix.” We think these changes will keep this tool relevant for at least another decade or two.


Our final thoughts are around what this means for you – as a manager trying to hold direct reports accountable or as an employee trying to be accountable for your work.


As A Manager…

As a reminder, setting expectations and granting authority are keys to establishing accountability. We want to emphasize the final key – consequences. One of the toughest things a manager has to do is address failure. There is no easy way around this issue – the manager must meet this challenge head-on to establish accountability. Put clear, meaningful consequences in place and, by all means, follow through.


As a Direct Report…

Before accepting a task, look at the accountability structure. If you are not aware of the expectations, do not have the proper authority to act, and do not know the consequences at the end of the day, you are in a bad situation. Build a case for clarifying goals, assigning resources and the authority to act, and ensuring you know the consequences. Finally, be prepared to accept the consequences if you do fail. Do it gracefully. Own up to your behavior and learn from it. That is accountability.



 

About the author: Paul Gillard, Ph.D. Paul fancies himself as an author but has never entirely found the time and focus to write the book he knows is within. Instead, he periodically creates short Organizational Realities Blog postings about the things that strike his interest. He hopes you find his ideas, concepts, and opinions insightful and helpful.

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