Leadership: Accountability

We all have a story of a time when we have really messed up and we know it.  Here is mine.

A car screeched to a halt and my friend, his older brother and I froze. I could not see the car; the trees blocked it from my view. I did hear the slam of the car door and a young man scream, “You little bleeps…” Then I heard him crashing through the woods, he was running at a sprint up the hill straight towards us.

I ran, I ran as I have never run before. My legs were pumping and my chest was burning. The three of us scrambled up the steep path. We could hear him behind us slowly gaining ground. Wave after wave of fear and panic washed over me.

My mind was blank and I was operating on pure animal instinct. Run, run, run!

Each of us tried to put on a burst of speed, not wanting to fall prey to the man whose labored breathing and pounding footsteps were getting louder.

All we needed to do was to make it back to the house. I remember thinking, “if we can get to the house, we will be safe”. We flew through the gate and sprinted across the lawn.

We hit the kitchen door at full speed and fell over each other. We had made it. I pushed myself up on my elbows gasping for air. I remember how cool the tile floor felt on my hands and how I could hear the hum of the refrigerator. It seemed for a moment that everything had stopped and time had paused for a moment.

Then the kitchen door burst open hitting the wall and there he stood. He was furious, red faced with a pulsing vein on his forehead and spittle on his chin. He had sweat through his shirt and his pant knees were ripped and covered in mud where he must have slipped chasing us. I could see that he had skinned his knee as there was a little blood. It’s funny what you notice just before you know you are going to die.

Fortunately, before he could tear us limb from limb, Mum stepped in glaring at the man and then at us on the floor. Her arms were crossed and her mouth tightly closed in the way that meant, “Do not mess with me or there will be trouble.”

There are consequences for throwing rocks at cars and it was in that late summer afternoon that I was reintroduced to the idea of accountability.

What is accountability? I want to define it for this article as the following: accountability is the implied or required expectation that you might be asked to explain your beliefs, feeling and actions to others.

I am interested in exploring the idea of accountability because the Gallup poll that I have referenced in previous posts reported that accountability was the third most desired quality people wanted to see in their managers and leaders.

As managers and leaders, it is important that we understand the power and purpose of accountability. I think we innately believe that accountability is important, and there are some instances when I believe this is true. I believe that as managers and leaders we have an unconscious bias toward the virtues of accountability. I want to challenge the usefulness of accountability as a management tool in the workplace.

I have divide accountability four stages.

  1. Childhood
  2. Adulthood
  3. Management
  4. Leadership

What is the value of accountability in early childhood? It can help children understand the norms, customs and social mores. The unwritten but understood rules of society.

We use accountability to teach our kids when to shake someone’s hand, to take off your hat when you are inside and to silence our cellphone at a live performance or movie theater.

We teach our children that certain actions have consequences. The rule of law is a construct we have created for those adults who step outside acceptable behavior. As a society, we have decided (for the most part) that minors should not experience the full force of law because we understand that they are still developing and learning societal boundaries.

I believe that accountability in the workplace is of less value. I remember in my first couple of jobs that accountability was only referred to when I had done something wrong or it concerned my yearly performance evaluation.

When I made a mistake or misunderstood a directive, I found myself in my boss’s office enduring a parental scolding. I would describe the communication as unpleasant and pointless because I had either figured out I had made a mistake and made the correction or I was unaware of the mistake because of a lack of training or a failure of management to express expectations.

Management felt good because they had held me accountable and had documented my transgression. I learned to fear management and to hide my mistakes. I cannot understand how this approach could develop a learning, open and collegial culture where people are interested in understanding another’s perspective.

There is a lot of research showing that when you hold people accountable in this manner they will tell you what they think you want to hear rather than telling you their true thoughts and ideas.

I remember making the transition to management and it was not what I imagined. I was still held accountable by the executive staff but was also having to answer to the people that I now managed. I had the added responsibility of providing annual performance evaluations and overseeing their daily activities.

I naturally emulated those managers who managed me. I micromanaged and focused on the mistakes people were making. I had one on ones where those mistakes were examined and documented. I focused my energies on efficiency, and the failure of staff to perform their required duties. I managed up and only presented the most glowing reports to the administrative team and avoided topics that might cast a shadow on my ability to manage. At the end of the first year my staff was miserable, I was miserable and I began to question the wisdom of this type of management. It did not work for me as an employee and it was not working for my staff. That was twenty-five years ago. I did not get it figured out all at once but things began to change. Holding people accountable was not working in day-to-day operations. I now understand that most people are naturally accountable, and I found that they are most accountable to their peers.

I imagine that you are questioning the assumption that most people are accountable. I came to this conclusion by hypothesizing the opposite, “Most people aren’t accountable”. I have observed over time people show up for work on time, and do the work. I have reviewed hundreds of resumes and all the applicants have gone to school, and gained some form of certification.

I believe that most of us are fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between total and zero accountability. The needle fluctuates depending on the circumstances. I also think managers perceive accountability very differently than those they manage.

As a leader, I continue to question the role of accountability in the workplace. Does it work and provide the culture and outcome I want for this organization? I have focused on personal accountability but I believe that accountability is not a personal issue, it is a process driven. When someone does not follow a process the first action I see taken by most managers it to focus on the staff person, asking why they did not follow the process. Is this the right question? Imagine asking the person a different question. What if we instead asked, “What step in this process is not working?” They might say a couple of things. They might simply say they forgot to take the step. This is great, they have taken personal responsibility and it was a simple mistake. Alternatively, they might share how the process is broken and that it is causing them to do all sorts of extra work to get their job done. Or they might share that they did not receive adequate training and do not know the processes they should be following.

I believe that accountability in the workplace is a shared value. We need to work together to achieve accountability as a team rather than use it as a performance indicator. It is not a lens that managers should look through to appraise the work of their staff but a lens to look at processes and training. Accountability, when used in a positive manner, promotes communication and a deeper understanding of each other.

When I think back to my childhood and that day that my friends and I decided to throw rocks at cars I shake my head. What was I thinking? I know exactly what I was thinking; throwing rocks at cars was fun. My child mind had no idea about how dangerous it was to the driver and the potential catastrophic consequences it might have caused. That day I left a little bit of my childhood behind. I understood how my actions can affect others and took a step away from my childhood and a step toward becoming an adult.