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What Does It Really Mean To Hold People Accountable?

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

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 the rogue politicians and reckless financial intuitions accountable, investors want to hold 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/or severe consequences (i.e., more people need to get fired for not performing)?

We began to question our own understanding of accountability. We decided to do a little 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 most often the call for more accountability is really an unspoken desire for more consequences (i.e., the reward for achievement and punishment for failure).

In this Organizational Realities blog we are going discuss what we think about accountability, discuss how it relates to responsibility and give our view of what this all 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 made 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 the employee is well within his or her rights to question the assignment and address the gaps before proceeding. We realize this is a strong statement, but perfectly legitimate if he or she is to be accountable.

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

Establishing Clear Goals

Ambiguity regarding desired outcomes for a given project must be eliminated and great care is taken to ensure that 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 key 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."

Often when dealing with clients we get push back on the “reportable” requirement. 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.

Granting Adequate Resources and Authority

It sounds absurd for a manager to demand action from an employee and at the same time prevent 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 no management training or support,

  • improve efficiency with no access to data or metrics, or

  • 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. When such projects fail, the manager is at fault, 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 bad performance."

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

  • 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, 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.

If you are the manager who has assigned the task to a direct report, you must ensure he has the wherewithal to get it done or assign it to someone who has the appropriate authority, resources, and ability.

Predetermining Consequences

When people are demanding more accountability, we find this is most often a call for stronger and more consistently applied consequences. “Consequences” are of course 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 the ways they can incent or redirect behavior, and may not communicate them clearly if they do exist. Moreover, many managers complain that they do not have the latitude to either bestow rewards or reprimand failure. Often, the manager is just not aware of what he or she can do. Here are some options: