Stop Talking About Accountability

I just finished two weeks of leadership training workshops, and I’m thoroughly sick of the word accountability.  So far as I can tell, it’s the most popular “empty” word buzzing about organizations today.  It’s shows up everywhere I go, it means nothing (or everything), it’s almost never defined in terms of actions, and it’s at the root of countless conflicts about individual and team performance.

Whenever I hear people use this word, I ask them to define it – but all I ever get are other equally empty words like responsibility or stewardship or whatever.  I almost never get a specific description of what a person is expected to do when they are “accountable.”  My (somewhat) joking definition has always been “the person who will be punished if things go wrong, but not necessarily rewarded if things go well.”

This word presents many challenges, but one of the biggest is the oft unspoken assumption about control.  People who seek accountability often do so in (usually mistaken) belief that if they are “accountable” then they will have “control” – the power to make decisions unilaterally and then impose their decisions on others.  If you ever see a fight about who’s “accountable,” what you’re almost certain watching is a fight over who wants to be “in control.”

Unfortunately, control is an illusion.  I have watched as people in all types of roles, even in CEO roles, make their pronouncements and then had to manage the wide range of responses that followed.  So, what can you do to stop talking about accountability, especially when you’re the person who’s just been handed the job?

  1. Define the word – NEVER leave this word undefined, especially if your performance will be judged by it.  Ask questions, and make sure to get specific, descriptive answers – what results do people want, how will they get measured, which methods can we use and which are out of bounds, and are there any specific actions we must take?
  2. Reject the illusion of control – NEVER assume that accountability means unilateral control of decisions.  Instead, go out and start a dialogue with key stakeholders about their idea of a good result and what role they want to play in decision-making.  Make sure to surface any conflicts about decision criteria and resolve those conflicts collaboratively, so you have broad support for all decisions.
  3. Negotiate specific expectations – Have a dialogue to clarify the roles of all key stakeholders.  On most projects, ALL stakeholders – including customers – have some role to play for the project to succeed.  You must make sure that each person understands and commits to his/her specific actions, and that the person understands the potential effects of choosing not to perform.
  4. Manage performance without authority – If you reject the illusion of control, you must embrace the skills of influencing and managing without authority.  These skills include understanding others’ views, linking expectations to interests, managing “off-track” performance with all stakeholders (including customers), and resolving conflicts that block commitment or action.  Once you master these skills, you increase the likelihood that you will get the actions and results you need.

I’m not sure that I will ever be able to get rid of the A word but – if you follow the steps list above – you are likely to find that the A word won’t trouble you anymore!