The Problem with Accountability
— Or, hey, it’s not my fault!

I didn’t have enough time.         If only I had more…
That’s not my job.                     Someone else will do it.
I don’t know how.                     I don’t think the boss said/meant that. 

The list is endless. The bottom line… It’s not my fault!

And therein lies the crux of the problem: Accountability isn’t about blame, it’s about ownership.

Don’t give me crap about my mask…

We recently conducted a workshop on Leadership Accountability. Powerful, uncomfortable stuff. People squirming in chairs, eyes shifting around, not making eye contact… even being accountable for understanding accountability was difficult.

Damn. How’d we get here?

First, let’s discuss what Accountability is in the leadership context, what it isn’t, and what it looks like when worn correctly.

(These are my definitions, so just bear with me. If you want to use your definitions, write your own article.)

“Leadership Accountability is being responsible for the results of your decisions or actions without demand or force and prepared to explain them when you are asked.

Think OWNERSHIP.”

Like owning a car. No one blames you for owning a car (well, some of you may push that a bit), you just own it. If it’s clean, that’s on you. If it runs good, that’s on you. If the oil isn’t changed regularly (you know who you are), that’s on you as well.

In other words, you’re completely accountable for that car. You aren’t to blame for the car, you’re simply accountable.

So, think ownership.

We keep using “responsibility” when discussing Accountability… are they the same thing?

No. Here’s something to chew on to distinguish between Responsibility and Accountability:

  • Responsibility is taking ownership of activities.  A person who completes the tasks required for their job or role is responsible.
  • Accountability is taking ownership of results.  A person who knows what needs to be accomplished and does what it takes to get the right results is accountable.

We’re responsible for tasks, accountable for results. No, that’s not just a play on words, either. It brings us to another point: Accountability is one-deep.

Many people can own responsibilities, but…
Accountability is one-deep

Many managers can be responsible for submitting their numbers to a Director. That director, however, is accountable for that report. If one of those managers doesn’t do their job, that director is still accountable for the report.

Only one person is ultimately accountable for any result, though many may have a responsibility to assist.

Now, just to mess with your head… that same manager may have had an accountability to submit that report, but it’s only an accountability for that manager – the director still has overall accountability for the report.

Things that make you go “hmmmm…”

To further unpack this, we must understand that Accountability doesn’t mean punishment. Accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions. We too often use Accountability and “holding someone accountable” as negative events. They aren’t, when done correctly.

First, you own accountability yourself. No one can “hold” you accountable for anything. They can force, coerce or threaten you to get you to do something, our even punish you when you don’t; but remember our definition, being forced doesn’t count.

What we can do, however, is assist others and ask for help ourselves.

We can help others with their accountability by doing what we’re supposed to do, respectfully reminding, and helping out wherever we can.

We can also ask others to help us with our accountabilities. Give people permission to be our eyes, ears, Jiminy Cricket or whatever floats your boat to help us remember and follow through. It’s not forced if you asked for help – it’s simply smart and resourceful.

So, how do we foster better accountability within our hallowed halls? It’s not hard, if we can get past the blaming game…

  • Clear communications. People know what’s expected and why it’s necessary.
  • Meaningful Consequences. Focus on positive consequences, negative/punishment is indicative of a failure somewhere. (this will be another article – it’s a big deal)
  • Model accountability. Leaders set the tone. Speak accountability; demonstrate accountability. “Do as I say, not as I do” simply will not work here.

The “Model Accountability” deserves more info… we model Accountability when we accept and embrace our own Accountability. Words like “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” “That’s on me,” and other similar statements imply accountability.

Think about it – openly accepting accountability is generally a positive thing, and has a constructive impact on others.

And be prepared to explain why, because that’s how we learn. Use reasons, not excuses. I could write a boring treatise on the difference, but I’ll use my simple mind’s clarification:

  • Reasons include my action or inaction as the center of the failure,
  • Excuses use another person, inanimate object or intangible as the center/cause of failure.

Give reasons, not excuses. We all learn, grow and improve when doing so.

I’ve crammed four workshop hours into this brief article, and those four hours could easily have been two days. Accountability, though simple, has the constant complexity of people’s emotions and fear. Makes for some heady stuff but hoped to give you a brief overview here.

Happy to share more if you like, just ask, comment or complain and we can discuss.