I saw a bumper sticker yesterday on the back of a SUV that said “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.” I laughed about it when I saw it and thought about how my kids begin any serious conversation by saying “it is not my fault, but…” We live in age of forfeited accountability. By forfeited accountability, I mean that we have been socialized to accept that blame, responsibility, or duty resides with others and not ourselves regardless of how large or small the matter is. In politics, business, and even our personal lives, we have basically adopted the idea of everyone is less than perfect except ourselves.
I spoke to a friend a few days ago who was complaining about his son’s recent grades. He said his son did poorly on a test and spent a considerable amount of time attempting to convince him that studying more would not have made a different and the circumstances surrounding the grade were outside of his control. When the father asked how not studying sufficiently could be anyone else’s fault, his son replied that the light in the room, time of day for the test, and layout of the test had more to do with the poor performance than any other factor.
Accountability is an issue we hear a lot about today. Whether it is failure of major components of our economic system without the notice of our government, firms failing to utilize sound business practices while standards are so easily circumvented even with multiple levels of scrutiny, or corruption reaching such high levels it becomes accepted as part of doing business, accountability is the one thing we demand to fix the issues. It is ironic, that we call for accountability in one breath, but in the next we cover our gluteus maximus with all our might.
Although determining who is to blame may not be the most productive exercise, many times if something is not working, it is important to know what is causing the issue. Several months ago, I conducted a session with a group of managers that were concerned about their unit’s poor performance. The managers were extremely capable and possessed most of the necessary prerequisites for success, even in a down turned economy. As we spoke, it became more and more evident that no one wanted to name any issue that might be hurting the performance of team. This reluctance led me to ask why no one wanted to identify the root cause. Several managers responded that “calling someone out would make everyone uncomfortable since it could happen to you next.” When I asked if the managers take the same approach with employees, the answer was “never, that is a manager’s job.” The irony of the response struck the audience almost immediately.
As leaders, accountability is critical for our individual, team, and organization success. The three things we should keep in mind to ensure that our organization is successful include:
- CYA is not a good culture
- Accountability starts at the top
- Blame is not a tool
CYA is Not a Good Culture
Intentionally or unintentionally, a fair amount of organizations develop a culture of CYA or Cover Your A**. Basically, a CYA culture ensures that every decision or action that turns out different than expected has an explanation that would allocate failure to the group as a whole thus preventing a single individual from possessing accountability or an unknown source that is almost phantom-like. The extreme is the organization that holds numerous meetings before making the simplest of decisions to ensure that so many parties are involved, accountability could never be established.
Accountability Starts at Top
Employees tend to copy the behaviors they see on a regular basis. Some of the emulation is unintentional or absorbed from the environment, while other behaviors are learned from interaction. If the executive team holds themselves accountability the employees will do the same. I recently worked with an association that employees were very accountable to themselves and each other in the past. However, as managers abandoned accountability at the leadership level, employees migrated to come more in line with the organizational norm.
Blame is Not a Tool
Although accountability is critical, if it is nothing more than a method of blame or conducting witch hunts, then it will backfire and result in lower productivity, poor morale, and greater conflict. Accountability is more than determining who made the decision, implemented the plan, or managed the process. It is organizational characteristic that leads to systems and structures that improve decision making and a culture that accepts risk and failure as long as they operate in an environment of improvement.