Accountability

In my worldview, accountability is a basic aspect of leadership. Leadership implies being in charge and that connotes responsibility.

 

Duties, Consequences and Learning

 

Frank J. Navran

© 2013 Navran Associates

In this “values” series I prefer to start each of the seven articles with definitions. It is useful when discussing things as broad as our core values to be certain we are all starting from the same place. It always fascinates me how useless dictionaries can be when I really need them. My desktop dictionary defines accountability as “being accountable”. How obvious and how devoid of value. What is needed here is a more detailed and subtle definition. So, I tried Google. Mostly, more of the same, but there were a few exceptions that caught my eye. In addition to the obvious, “…be accountable” I encountered phrases like… to account for one’sactivities, acceptresponsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner and …answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. Better, but wordy.

When I narrowed the search to “employee accountability” I got things like… to complete the tasks they are assigned, to perform the duties required by their job, and to be present for their proper shifts in order to fulfill or further the goals of the organization.

A few words and phrases resonated, so I suggest that for the purposes of this discussion we can start to define accountability as the obligation to fulfill our duties and accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions, be they positive or negative. That captures the essence in my mind.There are two sides to this definition that resonate for me: obligation and responsibility. We are demonstrating accountability when do what we are obliged to do and when we accept responsibility for the consequences of what we have done (or not done).

For this discussion, I think we should focus on the second half of the definition… the component that comes down to accepting responsibility for the consequences of our decisions, actions, or inactions. Accountability means that we “own” the results of what we do and what we fail to do. Anticipated or unexpected, good, bad or indifferent, we own it. Whatever the fallout, it is our fault.

You Were Right! I Was Wrong! I’m Sorry! It Will Never Happen Again!

In my worldview, accountability is a basic aspect of leadership. Leadership implies being in charge and that connotes responsibility. My friends, colleagues and in the past, my employees, knew my mantra. “Let’s not waste time fixing the blame. Let’s focus on fixing the problem.” Get the blame game over with and get down to the task of solving the problem at hand. Hold me accountable. After all, if it happened on my watch I own it. My boss is going to blame me anyway so….

That is the crux of the matter. Collectively, we focus too much on pointing fingers and deciding who is to blame and not enough on understanding, learning from, and preventing recurrences of the problem at hand. And that is understandable, because we are so accustomed to “blame” being associated with “punishment”. Our operational assumption is that accountability equals punishment. If I “own” the problem then something bad will happen to me. If I make a mistake I will be punished.

How might our organizational dynamic be changed if we viewed mistakes as learning opportunities? Experience is the best teacher and failure is often the more memorable experience. How wasteful/foolish is it to experience the consequences of a mistake and squander the learning opportunity because we are too busy dodging the blame or assigning it to others.

And why do we do that? Is it “human nature” or a cultural artifact? I believe that many organizations are more interested in blaming than problem solving simply because it is the easier way out. If I fix the blame and punish the guilty I am seen as doing something. Blaming creates the appearance of addressing the problem. It has a frontier justice feel to it. Find the culprit, make the case and make them pay.

The alternative is captured in a lesson I learned decades ago that shaped my management and leadership philosophy. Once a problem occurs there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. It is time to accept reality and focus on fixing the problem, not the blame. In researching the origins of the “fixing the problem” quote I came across a reference to the movie, Rising Sun, in which the Sean Connery character says, “The Japanese have a saying, Fix the problem, not the blame. Traditionally, we were too often fixated on finding out, ‘who screwed up’. Their way is better.”

My experience, from a leadership perspective, is that in most cases it doesn’t really matter who caused the problem. What does matter is that I have a responsibility to make whatever is wrong, right. That might not be the perfect expression of the core idea of accountability, but it captures it better than most. I cannot pinpoint a specific instance that burned that belief into my brain, but it might have come from one of my earliest “leadership” experiences.

I enlisted in the US Air Force right after high school. I quickly learned that there are only three acceptable responses in Basic Training: “Yes sir!”, “No sir!”, and “No excuse sir!” It is that third answer that is focused on accountability. Rather than invest my energy in trying to deflect blame, it is simpler, more efficient and ultimately more effective to accept responsibility for finding and implementing the solution to the problem at hand. However “it” happened, whatever bad outcome “it” might generate, if “it” happened on my watch “it” is mine to fix.

If you understand how and why something bad happened, you increase the likelihood that you can prevent it from recurring. Similarly, if you understand how and why something good happened you increase the likelihood that you can make it happen again. It is not enough just to have had the “experience”. It is only valuable if we learn from that experience. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat out mistakes.

Later in my life, when in a leadership position, I stayed with that concept. If “it” happened in my shop, if ”it” happened on my watch, then “it” was my problem.

  •          Step one: accept responsibility for the problem.
  •          Step two: learn how and why it happened.
  •          Step three: fix it.
  •          Step four: prevent it from happening again.

Owning the accountability for the outcomes that occurred under our umbrella of responsibility (even if not 100% under our control) can focus us on learning from our experiences and earning the respect of those we lead, serve and support. When we act responsibly, when we embrace accountability for our outcomes, we are adding value to every task we undertake.

This is not just a theory. It is a reflection of my experience. While I learned the “accountability” lesson in the military, I really had the chance to apply it as a leadership lesson later, in civilian life. As a mid-level corporate manager, a problem occurred on my watch. I was new in the assignment and the problem was one I had neither encountered previously nor anticipated. There was an after-action “investigation” into what happened and why it happened.

During a complex process of reconfiguring a portion of the network of telephone cables serving a growing community a cable splicer failed to “buffer” a major trunk cable with the result that several hundred customers were out of service for a couple of hours. The failure was a function of the engineer leaving the buffering instructions off the work order.  There was an agreement between the engineering manager and my predecessor that, since the craftsmen and supervisors at that time were all experienced and buffering was a routine task, the blueprints used in the process could be “uncluttered” if routine technical notes, like the one calling for buffering, were omitted. I had subsequently reassigned several people in an effort to broaden their experience and the result in this case was an inexperienced craftsman and newly promoted supervisor working on this particular job. Absent any notation on the work order, they didn’t buffer the cable they were working on, resulting in the service outage.

As part of that investigation I was being interviewed. When asked who was responsible for the event I simple stated, “It happened in my watch. It is my responsibility.” My view of leadership is that if you need to blame someone, blame me. That comes with the position.

The person conducting the investigation pressed for a name. I told him that I did not yet know. I would find out, but more importantly, would take the necessary steps to understand “why” it happened, not just who did it. That way it was more likely that I could ensure that it would never happen again.

Interestingly, the positive aftermath from that stance cannot be overstated. My direct reports began to understand my definition of leadership. Their direct reports began to accept my “legitimacy” despite my status as an “outsider” - not having come up through the ranks, as was the norm. I would never have intentionally created the failure that precipitated that sequence of events. But once the problem arose, I was not going to squander the opportunity to assert my leadership. I choose instead to model what I expected and would come to demand of those I led.

I expect absolute accountability. If it happens on your watch, you own it. Good, bad or indifferent, leadership demands accountability. It may not be “fair” but it is what differentiates true “leaders” from “place holders”. And, since leadership is a “skill” there are certain aspects of leadership that are readily taught and, for most people, easily learned. That is not to suggest that actually “doing” what you learn is always easy but knowing what to do can be learned by almost anyone. Leadership can be hard. But there are lessons we learn along the way that might make it easier if we are willing to change our behavior. After all, a pretty smart guy once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”[1] If we are going to be more effective as leaders, we have to be willing to try different ways of doing some things.

Given the above discussion, I suggest that here are three questions that we ought to consider when discussing accountability as a characteristic of effective leadership.

  •          Is there a justifiable presumption of accountability that comes with being in a leadership position?
  •          Is the definition of accountability when one is in a leadership role fundamentally different from when one is in a “follower” role?
  •          Can accountability be taught?

 

Presumptive Accountability

 

I find it interesting that one of the basic lessons of leadership, the power of expectations, is so rarely discussed. Leadership is rife with unjustified expectations couched in the form we have come to know as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We unjustifiably expect something and that expectation creates the very thing we had no realistic right to expect. Again, courtesy of Wikipedia…

“20th-century sociologist Robert K. Merton is credited with coining the expression "self-fulfilling prophecy" and formalizing its structure and consequences. In his book Social Theory and Social Structure, Merton defines self-fulfilling prophecy in the following terms: e.g. when Roxanna falsely believes her marriage will fail, her fears of such failure actually cause the marriage to fail.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come 'true'. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.

In other words, a positive or negative prophecy, strongly held belief, or delusion—declared as truth when it is actually false—may sufficiently influence people so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false prophecy.”

 

I especially like Merton’s reference to a reign of error. Self-fulfilling prophesies, for all their impact, are inherently based on a false premise and are therefore, incorrect. Of course even a broken watch is right twice a day, and the occasional success of self-fulfilling prophesies, paradoxically, seems to be enough to perpetuate our confidence in what is known to be an untrustworthy process.

Accountability as a Component of Effective Leadership

 

Our operating premise is that effective leaders ought also be ethical leaders. Both effectiveness in the pursuit of unethical goals and ethical goals attained through unethical means are contrary to our expectations of leadership as a positive force in moving people and organizations towards their desired success. One definition of leadership I use is, “the ability to get others to want to do what we want them to do without resorting to either threats or bribes”.

Using this definition allows us to ensure that leaders are held to account - accountable for satisfying the expectation that the desired goal(s) will be attained and that success will be attained without resorting to any transgressions of societal and/or organizational norms and standards.  Simply stated, success is only success when the means by which it is earned conform to all applicable legal, organizational and ethical standards. The unlawful or unethical attainment of even the most desired goals is unacceptable.

Again, while that may be the presumptive starting point, history teaches us that there are exceptions enough to prove this rule. But as a general guideline it has served me well.

Leader Accountability Vs. Follower Accountability

 

One reason for those exceptions may be that while accountability is something we all understand, the reality is that we don’t all understand it the same way. For many of us accountability is a synonym for responsibility. There are, in fact, subtle differences between the two. Accountability is often defined as a “broader” obligation. Accountability implies an obligation to do what we believe is right, fair and just. It suggests our willingness to accept the responsibility for the consequences of our decisions and actions. It also includes an obligation to do more than simply follow orders or to require those we lead to follow orders. We are obliged to anticipate and evaluate the impact of what we do or don’t do. Perhaps most importantly, implicit in the concept of accountability is the expectation that, whether as leaders or as followers, we own the consequences of our actions and inactions.

As leaders our accountability goes beyond the decision to do whatever tasks need doing.  There is a concomitant obligation to exercise prudence and care in how we choose whom among our employees should do what tasks, as well as establishing the standards to which those tasks should be done. For example, if I were to pick an untrained or ill-equipped person to do a high-risk task that would typically be deemed “irresponsible”. Picking that same person to do a low-risk task for which they are not yet trained or for which their competence is an unknown could easily be understood as a training opportunity or a prudent means` to test what a person’s limits are.

Responsibility suggests that there is accountability for the consequences of a specific action or decision (including the decision to not act). As followers we may not be responsible for selecting the task we are assigned but we are certainly accountable for the actions we take in executing that task. We are accountable for the effectiveness, the timeliness and the quality of what we do even if we were not responsible for the decision that it be done or the decision that it be done by us. And, of course, we are accountable for the means by which we accomplish the task. How we do what we do is just as significant as the outcome – the successful or unsuccessful completion of the task at hand.

 

Can accountability be taught?

We know that accountability is learned behavior. Observe any group of small children and you may notice that accountability might not be their first instinct. “I want it. You can’t have it, It is mine” might be the basic instinct. Visit a playground or preschool and watch a group of kids playing under parental supervision. Some of these adults recognize play as an opportunity to teach accountability to their children and others “insulate” their little angels from it. Watch as the inevitable conflicts arise and see how the adults handle these issues. Two patterns seem to dominate – “accountability” and “blame”. In the latter case, whatever I am experiencing that I do not like is, by definition, someone else’s fault. In the former case, whatever I am experiencing is a consequence, at least in part, of what I am doing. Therefore, as a minimum, I own part of the responsibility for whatever is going on.

That suggests that accountability is learned behavior.  At least it appears to be for children. But can we teach the unique manifestations of accountability as it applies in the workplace to adults? We can certainly model and demand accountability? Whether or not we can teach it may depend on several variables: time, cost, and consequence/significance…. It also depends on what our expectation is when we say “teach”. I believe there are two components of teaching any aspect of leadership, including accountability: theory and practice. What we say is “theory” What we model or have the other person do is “practice”.

I think theory get a bad rap in business today. It is often viewed as abstract, cerebral and impractical. In my experience the opposite is more accurate. Theory plants the idea. Practice nurtures it and causes it to grow. But without an underlying theory we can only replicate (mimic) specifically what we have been taught. Without understanding the underlying theory (understanding plus practice) we cannot necessarily adapt or apply a given concept to a new or unforeseen situation.

If we assume that accountability can be taught, then who should be teaching it and how might it be taught? In an ideal world our employees would all come to us having benefitted from enlightened parenting and quality educations. Lessons, such as accountability would have been taught and reinforced throughout their pre-adult years and beyond. They would report for duty fully understanding the concept of accountability and predisposed to accept the consequences of their actions and decisions. Unfortunately, our world is less than perfect and our employees are not all imbued with a fully developed sense of personal responsibility and the accompanying sense of accountability.

That means that if we are to expect accountability we must be prepared to model it, teach it observe it, coach it, actively encourage it and ultimately, insist on it. We also have to acknowledge and reward it when we see it and correct and educate for it when we do not.

 

Why some avoid accountability?

 

To start with the obvious, questions of accountability most often come to the fore when something goes wrong. And in many organizations, something going wrong is viewed first and foremost as a cause for blame and punishment. In those organizations, higher-level management’s first reaction to a problem is to fix the blame. Fixing the problem comes later. In those organizations my first reaction as a manager might be CYA – Cover My Assets – and primary among those assets is my reputation. So, step one is to deflect any responsibility for the problem at hand to the nearest scapegoat.

Please note that I am not referring to CYA as a preferred management strategy.  Common, perhaps, but not preferred. Wikipedia notes that “Management in all business and organizational activities is the act of coordinating the efforts of people to accomplish desired goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.” In too many cases, foremost among a manager’s desired goals and objectives is protecting his/her reputation/position and, in many people’s minds that requires avoiding blame.

I choose to not refer to those who think first about covering their own backsides as “leaders” because CYA isn’t leading by any definition. Leaders, at least those I know and respect as leaders, are very quick to share credit when things go well and equally quick to accept responsibility when things do not go well. When things go right leaders talk about giving credit where credit is due – and the line to get credit for a success is long.

Many of those I have encountered in leadership positions do not rush to the forefront and claim responsibility when things go awry. Rather, they look for reasons why it is not their fault. It is truly sad. What these people fail to realize is that there are typically lessons to be learned from failure. If we eschew responsibility for the failure we may also be depriving our organization and ourselves of the inherent benefits of that failure. We, individually and collectively, have already paid the price for the failure in question. It seems shortsighted and foolish to deny ourselves the lessons to be learned from that experience.

I suggest that true leaders accept that they have an obligation to share the credit for success and perhaps an even greater obligation to accept responsibility for whatever failures might occur on their watch. In this way everyone benefits from the shared lessons learned.

Practice makes perfect is an illusion

Accountability is a value, but behaving in ways that realize that value is a skill. As with nearly every other skill, we improve with practice. But, despite the old adage to the contrary, practice will not make perfect. Continuing practice will yield continuing improvement and that is about the best we can hope for.

The key with accountability in the workplace is more about recognizing the nature of a given situation, applying the appropriate response and standing tall - accepting the consequences of that choice. Accountability is simple in concept. We find it becomes difficult in execution because sadly, in so many organizations, when we have to step up and be accountable it is because something went horribly wrong – so accountability is tantamount to admitting a mistake. For most of us about the only thing we hate more than making a mistake, is having to admit that we made it. 

When leadership at any level accepts that accountability is a two-sided coin, reinforcing success as well as addressing shortcomings as part of the accountability equation, life gets easier for all concerned.

It is also useful to point out that one need not be the beneficiary of having a leader who balances admonition with positive recognition, who understands accountability and knows how to encourage it, to be a leader who chooses to do so. It is possible – actually, in my experience, it is really easy, to lead the way you believe you ought to lead despite the way you are being led.

I have worked for tyrants without choosing to become a tyrant. I have worked for disinterested/distant leaders who only care about numbers, without choosing to become like them. I lead from my convictions and experience – doing what I believe is right and what I know works for me. I treat those in my organization the way I believe is best for them, me and those we serve. I hold them accountable for their results, the specific outcomes they achieve and the way they achieve them, irrespective of how my boss treats me and measures my performance.

Accountability requires us to be more than a conduit for our superiors’ leadership style. We are accountable to those leaders for results and we achieve those results through those we lead and how well they serve our customers. And, since we are human, we are all imperfect in how we do that. We all make mistakes despite good intentions. The goal is simply to make fewer mistakes and with lesser negative consequences.

One simple rationale that has worked well for me over the years to soften the blow of having to admit my own fallibility is recognizing that the very act of admitting a mistake demonstrates accountability, responsible, charity, honesty, and integrity. Admitting what we cannot do and knowing when to ask for help is another facet of maturity and a good model for those we lead - and one that we can encourage them to adopt,

Conclusion

If we aspire to be ethical leaders we must recognize that ethical leadership means that we operate from a set of values. We also have to recognize that our values are interdependent.  Throughout this series of articles I’ve been treating each of the seven values as a somewhat independent variable.  Reality is that each of them is an interconnected segment of a greater a whole. We cannot separate honesty from accountability or integrity from compassion. Each of the seven values in this series relates to the other six in almost every decision of significance we are called on to make. If I make a poor decision and accept the responsibility and the accountability that goes with making a poor decision, implicit in that acceptance is courage, concern with fairness, integrity, honesty, etc. 

Our values do not exist in splendid isolation any more than we, operating in an organizational context, can function in isolation. Everything we do in the workplace creates ripples and we can rarely anticipate how wide those ripples spread or what impact they will have over time. Nor can we prioritize our values. Which are primary, secondary or tertiary is also situational. The key for us is to understand all of the values that drive our decisions. We also need to recognize all of the expectations concerning those values that organizations, colleagues, clients, subordinates and society at large impose on us as we make decisions.

Society expects us to behave ethically even when no one is looking and even when the stakes appear to be low. I find it interesting that very often when the financial stakes may seem low some are lulled into thinking that the ethical stakes are also low. I would suggest that just as nature abhors a vacuum, society also abhors a vacuum as well. We do not make our decisions in a values-free vacuum. We make our decisions and choose our courses of action in a context that imposes obligations on us to behave in certain ways and rise to certain standards.

The mechanism for ensuring that we do, in fact, rise to meet those expectations is embedded in the concept of accountability. We are held to account for the actions and decisions we make and the impact of those actions and decisions, whether or not that impact was foreseeable.  Everything we say and everything we do matters. And we are held to account for everything we say and do.

Just as in financial accounting, our behavior creates reputational assets and liabilities. When we behave intelligently and ethically, others view us positively and we are seen to be acting as an asset. When we behave ethically, even if we are not acting intelligently, we are more likely be forgiven for our errors in judgment or execution because we will be deemed to have had good intentions. When we fail both in terms of our judgment and our ethics we will be judged harshly, and justifiably so, because we failed to be guided by the fundamental truths that society holds dear.

Even more importantly, those of us of good conscience will introspectively judge the ethics of our every decision. When the judgment of others combines with our self-assessment we learn what we need to do better next time. Even when we rationalize in an effort to soften the blow, if the result is that we go against what we know to be right, fair and good, we do ourselves real and lasting harm. It we adhere to our values we do a service to ourselves, our customers, our employers and society.

Accountability is the value that reminds us, we will be judged. We will be held to account for the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. I, for one, am glad it is there.


[1] Albert Einstein