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Is More Accountability the Answer? Think Again

By ANN LATHAM

“We need more accountability!”

This is a familiar cry. Executives, managers, and employees alike, all frustrated by delays and incomplete work, are demanding greater accountability.

What exactly do they want? They want clear goals, follow-up, answers, and consequences. They crave order and predictability so everything can go more smoothly. If necessary, heads must roll.

It is easy to see why. The norm in most companies includes many dropped balls, missed deadlines, crossed signals, and inadequate responses to requests and problems. The frustration and demand for greater accountability are totally understandable.

If management would just tighten everything up and take control, results would be easier to achieve for all. Right? Wrong.

The solution isn’t accountability. There are far too many situations where accountability practices fail.

When the work is unfamiliar and unpredictable, strict accountability, with its black-and-white goals and black-and-white follow-up, only highlights repeated failures as employees hit one obstacle after another. Accountability doesn’t make the goals, which are merely guesses in new situations, more reasonable. It doesn’t eliminate unanticipated problems. It doesn’t magically reveal to employees what they don’t know. And it doesn’t instantly create new skills. But it does generate feelings of disappointment, stress, anger, insecurity, and injustice. It does encourage employees to invest time and energy in developing excuses at the expense of achieving results.

When the goals require contributions from many employees, strict accountability doesn’t magically reduce dependencies and create autonomy. It doesn’t increase the impact of any one employee’s tiny piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t make less-skilled employees more capable, or less-committed employees more determined. But it does pit employees against each other. It encourages us-versus-them thinking and finger pointing. And it leaves employees feeling powerless, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

And when the work lands in the hands of employees who just aren’t highly effective, strict accountability sets them up for failure, not success. It doesn’t hand these employees self-mastery, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, patience, persistence, confidence, courage, discipline, or great communication skills. It doesn’t suddenly make them superstars. But it does leave many well-intentioned, hardworking employees at the mercy of the many obstacles common to humans and complex organizations.

These are just a few examples where accountability fails. Tighten accountability for employees in these situations, and you create losers, not winners.

The Power of Commitment

Now, if all your employees are either highly effective or have highly predictable days, great autonomy, and goals over which they have total control, then accountability practices will work great for you. But when you think about it, those employees probably deliver even without much emphasis on accountability.

No, accountability is not the answer. Commitment is.

Committed employees keep on plugging, surpass goals, constantly look ahead, and give no thought to excuses for missing the mark. They help each other and don’t point fingers. They are open to honest feedback because they don’t feel threatened. They see themselves as important players, not pawns in a game where raises, bonuses, promotions, and jobs are on the line.

Committed managers help employees identify and overcome obstacles. They team up to solve problems and don’t feel the need to hold feet to the fire. They build confidence and reduce stress. And they build the commitment of their employees.

When employees and managers are truly committed, they get the job done. Somehow. Collectively. It might not be pretty, but it works. They band together. They are inventive. They are excited and determined. Often, it doesn’t even really matter who was supposed to be accountable. They succeed because of their commitment, not because of accountability practices.

When it comes to getting results, nothing is as powerful as commitment.

To generate commitment, managers must partner with their employees. They must be true partners — partners who win and lose together. Partners who are obviously on the same team.

How do partnering managers behave? They:

• Treat employees as equals, needed for mutual success, not subordinates;

• Encourage employees to take ownership of their own success, on the job and in life;

• Listen, ask, answer, and offer — and resist the temptation to do more until asked;

• Provide honest feedback so employees know where they stand, know how they can improve, and develop self-awareness and self-management; and

• View the employment relationship as a win-win deal, which is created and ended with mutual respect, professionalism, and no shame.

When managers tap into the natural accountability of partnerships, which prevents either party from letting the other down, everybody wins.


Ann Latham is the president of Uncommon Clarity Inc. She has done projects in 28 industries, and her clients include for-profit organizations, such as Hitachi, and nonprofit organizations, such as public television and Smith College. Her words of advice have appeared in 85 media sources, including Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Forbes, MasterCard.com, MSNBC.com, and the New York Times. Her writing can also be found at Ann’s Clarity App, bit.ly/anns-clarity-app, and at uncommonclarity.com.

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