Say accountability one more time


Accountability is one of those topics that sounds super easy but is the hardest to get right in practice. A recurring pattern in organizations is

  1. The top of the totem pole (exec team, org VP’s) get together and decide the strategy for the year
  2. It gets broken down into priorities and goals for the year
  3. Its gets documented and passed downwards via some process
  4. The entire organization references the document and should have visibility into priorities and be completely aligned
  5. Starting from the top every node in the hierarchy points to the document and downward and says I hold you accountable to this. This process continues until you reach the individual contributor at the bottom of the tree.
  6. The organization achieves 30% of what’s on the priority list
  7. The accountability stack unwinds upwards with the feedback that either
    1. The goals were not clear
    2. Stuff changed midstream
    3. Reasons why the goal was missed
  8. Go back to Step 1

This loop repeats like clockwork. Welcome to accountability theatre.

A pattern I’ve noticed is that real accountability in organizations is inversely proportional to the number of times the word accountable is mentioned and repeated. It’s exactly like leadership theatre – the more you talk about leadership, the less you are leading. The more you talk about accountability- the less accountable you and your team are. My favorite book – Nine lies about work, has a great chapter on goals that highlights this anti-pattern. I highly recommend the book, its the best HR book I’ve ever read period!

Why this doesn’t work

I’m all for writing goals down to provide clarity, but just the act of writing a goal and then pointing somebody to the goal doesn’t make the person automatically accountable and guarantee execution. It comes down to intrinsic accountability vs extrinsic accountability. Telling a person that they are accountable for something is relying purely only on extrinsic motivation. It is not rocket science that intrinsic motivation works much better than extrinsic motivation. To build accountable organizations you have to figure out what drives intrinsic accountability.

Another aspect that isn’t talked about much is the consequences side of the equation. In accountability theater, there is an implicit assumption that people will be accountable due to fear of the consequences. Traditionally very few industries (investment banking as an example) are cutthroat to just fire the person because they missed a number/goal i.e there is a consequence for not being accountable. This type of authoritarian organizational structure works where the participants are highly compensated and the supply of participants is not constrained. Investment bankers are highly paid and relative to the number of positions available there is a large pool of aspiring applicants. If you fire a banker because he flubbed a deal, there are a lot of highly qualified candidates willing to take their place. Demand is low and supply is relatively high, fire and replacement are relatively easy.

This is not the case in most other organizations, especially technology-driven organizations. The supply of talent is very constrained. Additionally, in knowledge related work there isn’t a standardized way to evaluate candidates and replace them quickly. As a result, the consequences of not being accountable is pretty low. You have to be egregiously bad at your job to get fired. This is another huge reason why on the margin extrinsic based accountability never works.

So what works then?

Accountability is a team sport. Rather than pointing downwards and saying I hold you accountable, leaders/managers have to figure out how to create an environment where you can stoke intrinsic motivation. A leader has to focus and go through the nitty-gritty mechanics of building that environment.

A few tips

Contextualize, contextualize, contextualize

There are very few pieces of information that are super confidential in organizations, so be an open book. Communicate everything about the health of the business – Why a particular strategy is being executed, why and how a particular decision was made, what challenges we face – communicate everything. Information is power, distribute it widely. Context is everything.

Make working together fun

Leaders underestimate this a lot. You are in charge of team morale. Teams work great together if they are having fun. You have to organize the rituals and outings to keep the team energized. Do not outsource this

Involve people in your decision-making process

Nothing enhances intrinsic motivation than involving the folks who are going to be accountable for executing a strategy in the decision-making process. Even if their input doesn’t make it into the final decision, it greatly increases the chances of their commitment to the strategy.

Accountability theater makes the wrong assumption that organizations are command and control hierarchies. It assumes the leader is at the top and can just point to a document and say jump, expecting their direct reports to ask how high. In reality in modern organizations the command and control pyramid is inverted. To succeed leaders need to realize that they are the bottom and it is their job to build a solid foundation that enables their directs to develop intrinsic accountability.

So the next time you say I hold you accountable, look inwards, have you enabled the person to be intrinsically motivated and accountable? Are you holding yourself accountable first?

Hello... ARE YOU THE ACCOUNTABILITY I'M LOOKING FOR? - Lionel Richie | Meme  Generator

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