Why we suck at Accountability


Accountability“My boss wants me to be accountable for sales results but none of the sales people report to me” was the complaint coming from a client.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard similar complaints – replace “sales” with “operations” or “service” and you should be able to relate to this common problem.

In fact, Accountability is the most often requested value in how people would like their companies to operate.  “We need a culture of accountability around here” is not unique to one or two companies.  Is it that people don’t want to be held to account or is it that managers resist holding people to account?

The root of the problem I have found is in the common understanding of what accountability really is.  We each, in our workplaces, are fundamentally accountable for Commitment and Adherence.  That is, once something is delegated to us we have to make our best effort to deliver on whatever we have promised.  No surprises.  Of course, great delegation will help us because it will always be clear about timeframes, quality of output, quantity of output, and the resources at our disposal.  Without this clarity our commitment is without foundation.   Once we have made the commitment we are also accountable for adherence.  We must operate within the rules, within any stated guidelines, within the law, company policies and within the stated resource constraints.  To draw outside these lines is unacceptable.

But wait!  There is more.  It is often unstated (and more often than not where we go wrong) but we each have four more elements to our accountabilities.

1. We are accountable for pushing ourselves – stretching and reaching for ambitious targets – no lowballing or under-promising!

2. We are accountable for producing results that are fully designed to meet the need – not roughly right or nearly there!

3. We are accountable for stewardship of company resources – using these valuable resources as if they were our own – no squandering!

4. We are accountable for teamwork – maximizing the total organizational output – not personal output or personal gain!

Some organizations I work with struggle with Accountability because these four relative accountabilities are sacrificed to the fixed nature of Commitment and Adherence.  Get it done – within the rules!  But we don’t take the time to make sure people also understand the requirement for teamwork, stewardship of company resources, producing results that don’t require rework from another department or making sure that we stretch ourselves when we take on those assignments.

In fact, we can all relate to people who meet the letter of the law and deliver the measured output required of them but they leave a trail of unhappy coworkers in their wake!   They under-promise, their work has to be re-worked, they burn up cycles with endless meetings, and only seem to care about their own measurable output or personal bonus!

So, let’s get back to my client who didn’t run sales but was being asked by the CEO to be accountable for sales results.  He had no authority to hire, fire or manage what the sales people actually sold.  He could not reward or promote those that drove the right results.  He had a full time job running the service delivery organization.  How was it that he was going to be successful in the eyes of the CEO?  In fact, the root of the problem was that the CEO was not holding the VP of Sales Accountable.  And much of the trouble was in the area of the four relative accountabilities on top of the fixed accountabilities.  The CEO was letting the VP of Sales off the hook for some unknown reason.

My client’s problem was that the CEO was trying to delegate the accountability for something without the authority.  Accountability without Authority is train wreck waiting to happen and so frustrating to the recipient that stress and unhappiness are common by-products.    The CEO has 100% Accountability and 100% Authority.  All delegation is a movement of the Accountability down the org chart in equal measure with the Authority.

Unclear accountability is sometimes masked by people acting responsibly.  Of course we want people to act responsibly but if Responsibility is inserted where Accountability should be then we end up plugging a hole temporarily but not permanently.  My client was acting with responsibility while he tried to partner and work with the VP of Sales.  He felt a need to work together on the relative accountabilities (teamwork, stewardship, right results, stretching targets) but this accountability is not enough without the delegation of authority.

In fact, the CEO might have been thinking that he needed to either find a new VP of Sales or a new VP of Service – someone to take charge and own it! – when the problem was not a people problem at all.  The problem here and in many companies is the system of delegation and the clear understanding of who is responsible for what supported by the willingness to hold people to account for their fixed AND relative accountabilities.

Categories: Corporate Brand, Corporate CultureTags: , , , , , ,

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