Understanding Accountability

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IMG_6121 Understanding Accountability work environment people leadership fallacies culture career

An Easy Statement To Make

Some statements are kicked around regularly like an empty Coca-Cola can in a deserted parking lot frequented by teenagers. They become so common that you don’t even pay attention to their true meaning. Are you ready for a Deja-Vu? Here it is:

People need to be held accountable.

How many times did you hear it during a post-mortem meeting or retrospective? I lost count!

You won’t find many people that disagree with it. It is a non-controversial statement. If you say it in front of you boss, you might feel like you are winning points. It implies that you hold yourself to a high standard compared to “all those other people who are not being held accountable.”

However, I do not like statements made only because they sound good. Words have to have a clear and intentional meaning. When you hear somebody claim that people need to be “held accountable,” ask them what it means.

I found that when I ask that questions, the person who said it either can’t define it precisely, have very unrealistic ideas, or doesn’t know at all. It is fascinating to me how phrases that sound good and seem right are too often void of clear meaning. It is also puzzling why very few people question the meaning of those phrases, even if they can’t explain them. Righteousness lacking substance is a form of delusion.

Accountability Is Not Punishment

When I ask and do get an answer, it usually sounds like, “It means that if you screw up you get fired.” Sounds harsh. Also, what does it mean? Does it mean that when someone makes a mistake, they should be immediately fired? Is that a good thing? I don’t think it is. Most people agree that taking risks and making mistakes is the best way to grow, learn and be successful.

Another explanation I get is, “It means that if you are not doing your job, you get fired.” What’s up with getting fired? Is that similar to a light-switch that gets flipped immediately if one day you “don’t do your job?” Does it mean that if you have a bad day, your boss lets you go? Boom! I wouldn’t want to work in that environment. Sounds like a culture of fear, and I have never seen a culture of fear produce sustainable results.

Confusing accountability with punishment is a fallacy of poor leadership. I do believe that if an employee is unable or unwilling to fulfill his or her duties, and there is no clear path to success, consequences are necessary. However, accountability has a well-defined meaning that must be kept independent from punishment.

Accountability is not something that happens to someone, and it’s not a bad thing. Look at it as a responsibility that good employees embrace in exchange for trust, independence, and compensation. It should be associated with clear actions and behaviors, not only clear consequences. It is a contract, not a threat.

The Dictionary Definition

The dictionary gets a lot closer to the meaning of accountability that I have in mind. Here are three versions of the word definition:

  • The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results transparently.
  • An assurance that an individual or an organization will be evaluated on their performance or behavior related to something for which they are responsible.
  • The quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

How does it translate to actions and behaviors?

Three main ingredients compose accountability.

Ingredient #1: Commitment

To be accountable, you must openly commit to achieving clear and measurable results in a defined timeframe.

There cannot be accountability if there is no commitment. As mentioned, being accountable is not something that happens to you. It is an agreement that you must embrace. Embracing it requires a clear commitment to achieve a set of well-defined goals, including what you are going to achieve, and when you are going to achieve it.

Committing to goals means:

  • Promising that you will do your best to meet a set of goals.
  • Declaring that, with the information you have, the goals are achievable.
  • Taking complete ownership of the completion of the goals, including seeking help if there are issues or delays.
Ingredient #2: Transparency

Transparency is a vital part of accountability. There are two main areas you should focus on:

  • Process Transparency. To be accountable, you need to be transparent about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what everyone should expect out of it. That is important because whoever you are accountable to — say your boss — is also accountable for something to someone. Transparency on what you are doing provides the people you are accountable to the information they need to fulfill their commitments. If you are not transparent, they can’t be transparent. If they can’t be transparent, no-one at the top will be able to see problems coming, and they won’t be able to take actions to correct them. It all falls apart.
  • Progress Transparency. To be accountable, you must be fully transparent on how you are tracking toward the goals you committed to. If things change or go sideways, you must be open and immediately share what it means for the achievement of the goals you committed to. That, again, allows the people up the chain to do the same.
Ingredient #3: Performance Evaluation

To be accountable, your performance must be eventually evaluated and measured — to a significant extent — based on your ability and willingness to commit to goals, be transparent about process and progress, and your level of success in achieving your goals.

A Few Notes on Performance Management

I cannot speak about performance evaluation and accountability without mentioning performance management.

Performance management is what the company is going to do to reward or correct performance measured against accountable goals. Other factors, such as overall value added to the business and overall value subtracted from the business, are part of performance management.

If an employee is successful in meeting the goals they are accountable for, they are most likely going to be considered strong contributors during a performance evaluation and rewarded as part of the performance management process.

There are exceptions. For example, it is possible for an employee to be exceptional at meeting accountable goals but still perform poorly. How? For instance, if an employee creates enough unhealthy friction with other employees to cause a drop in their performance. Or in case the employee uses unethical practices to achieve their goals, etc.

Performance management is a separate topic, only partially related to accountability.

The Role of Trust

Sometimes, when the subject of transparency comes up, people have a knee-jerk reaction that goes like this:

Why do I need to be transparent? Leadership must trust professionals to do their job. Transparency is a form of control that has no value other than making management feel better.

This way of thinking (in most cases) is a fallacy due to confusing transparency and micromanagement. That is, confusing cause and effect. Micromanagement is an effect that poor leaders have to information they don’t like; it has nothing to do with transparency.

I’ll give you an example to illustrate the difference. Let’s say that a developer approaches his or her boss and says:

Developer: “Hey boss, I have some bad news. I initially thought that this project would take me two weeks to finish. I understand that we promised the code to the customer. However, now that I am a week in, I realize that it will take me three more weeks.”

The Micromanager

Here is an example of how a micromanager would respond to that:

Micromanager: “That is not acceptable. Apparently, you are taking the wrong path. Here is the list of 5 things you must do to get the work done on time. In my estimation, each step should take you exactly one day. I’ll check back with you daily for the next five days to see that you are on track.”

Note how this micromanager is skeptical and inflexible. The bad news causes a reaction of immediate mistrust. He or she prescribes a set of steps, provides his or her estimation of effort — without asking if the developer agrees — and sets up a framework for control.

The Leader

Here is how a leader would respond to the bad news given by the developer:

Leader: “Thank you for letting me know. Let’s brainstorm for a few minutes to see if together we can find a way to either cut the scope of the project, redefine the problem or ask somebody to help. If not, I’ll reset expectations with the customer.”

Note how the leader does not question the assessment of the developer. He or she offers to help by brainstorming the issue to explore if there is a way to reduce the scope of the problem. Giving a time constraint (a few minutes) makes it feel like a safe conversation, and prevents the developer from feeling like the brainstorm will turn into an high-stakes discussion.

The leader aims to leverage the expertise of the developer to find a way to bring value to the customer in the time available. The leader also takes responsibility to reset the expectations of the customer in case there is no other solution.

Acknowledging that there might not be another solution further proves that the leader is not questioning the judgment of the developer. As a result, the leader is providing their skills and influence to resolve the problem without making the developer feel unsafe, judged or mistrusted.

Conclusions

Transparency is not an enemy of trust. In a mutually respectful relationship between two professionals, transparency is a necessary ingredient of trust. Real accountability requires transparency, and that has nothing to do with micromanagement.

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