Accountability: a privilege or burden?

Accountability, like Empowerment and Ownership became a management fad in the early 2000s. And, like Empowerment and Ownership, in most organizations Accountability has become a hollow and empty slogan that prompts eye-rolling and sarcastic comments. People often wave the “A” word around when they want others to get things done or more regularly when they are frustrated with others for not getting things done. However, in my thirty-plus years of working with organizations I haven’t seen either make a difference.

The intention behind this concept has always been pure and noble: To create an environment that supports people to be clear and honest about what they will deliver and encourages them to do what they say they will. Accountability has always had the intent and flavor of enabling people to rise above challenging circumstances and overcome obstacles. It has always been about substituting excuses and justifications with relentless action that achieves clear results.

Unfortunately, in most organizations people turned Accountability into something unconstructive. When people say: “They need to take accountability!” they often mean: “They need to deliver or bare the consequence.” And, by bare the consequence they mean “be punished”, or often more specifically “be fired.”

In fact in many organizations Accountability is referred to as “Single throat to choke”. Are you surprised why people would not be excited to volunteer to be that single throat to choke?

Webster’s doesn’t help either. Its definition of Accountability is: “Liability to be called on to render an account; the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected.”

But, Accountability was meant to represent a positive and productive space; encouraging people to believe in the cause and feel personally compelled to go out of their way to drive progress and results. It is supposed to encourage people at all levels of an organization to behave as if they are the owners of the business.

Accountability comes from the phrase “You can count on me”. And, that statement is a self-proclamation. It stems from and evokes the sentiment of privilege and opportunity, not obligation and/or liability.

When people view Accountability as a burden and/or liability it provokes the wrong behavior. In fact, in most organizations the default mode around Accountability is one of fear.

In an environment of fear people play it safe, they hold back, they don’t speak up, they don’t take risks, they protect themselves. And, when things go wrong they are quick to excuse themselves and blame others. They miss the opportunity to learn from failures for a better future.

All this is 100% the opposite of what Accountability was supposed to be!

Any strategy or plan is only as good as people’s relationship with it. Creating a genuine environment of Accountability goes a long way to enable people at all levels to establish a powerful relationship to their company or team’s strategy or plan.

In my next blog I’ll write about how to create a culture of genuine Accountability – the way it was meant to be.

In fact, I will share: Five practical things leaders or managers could do in order to create and sustain an environment of authentic and effective Accountability.

Do you have the conditions to take your team to the next level?

When an organization or team wants to generate a bolder and more compelling future and strategy, and rapidly and powerfully take its game to the next level it has to address two dimensions: the “content” associated with the future or strategy, and the “context” associated with the future or strategy.

The content means making sure that there is a clear, precise, robust and well-structured game plan, which for most teams is in the form of a strategy or set of objectives. The leaders must ensure that everyone on the team understands the strategy in the same way.

In so many organizations and teams this seemingly simple step is not achieved in a powerful and effective way. Typically the strategy is too high level, vague or conceptual, and different team members have different ideas, interpretations, agendas and priorities about the direction, methodology and destination.

I started working with a new division of well known successful global telecommunication organization. As part of learning about this division I set up interviews with all the senior executives and a hand full of managers that report to them. One of my interview questions was “Do you have a clear vision and strategy that everyone understands, is aligned with, owns and works passionately together toward?

Most people answered “No!” And, many added with frustration or discouragement “It’s really hard to get alignment. We sit in meetings discussing our strategy about specific initiatives. We leave the meeting thinking we have agreement and then everyone goes off to their area and does what they want anyway.”

Some leaders said “Yes!” but when I asked them to elaborate on the vision or strategy, their description was either extremely watered down and high-level or there were significant discrepancies between people’s descriptions on key areas.

I see this dynamic in many successful teams and organizations.

The context means making sure there is a team dynamic – some refer to it as: culture, environment or mindset – in which everyone can truly be open, honest, authentic and courageous, and an environment in which people genuinely feel “in this together”, even if they don’t all report to the same boss, which is the case in any matrix management environment; an environment in which everyone is excited about the game and feels genuine ownership commitment and accountability toward the bigger success.

In most teams, including the most successful ones, most people feel the exact opposite way. They describe the dynamic of team communication as more cautious, calculated, politically correct and held back. Even those who feel that the team can discuss everything in an open and honest manner often add the caveat “discussions are not effective and they frequently don’t lead to concrete decisions that everyone fully own and is aligned behind.” Or “when we do make decisions we don’t track them and follow through.” These symptoms are always lagging indicators of lack of authentic ownership in the first place.

Addressing the content alone will at best produce a dynamic of unenthusiastic compliance. But often it produces frustrations, fear and resignation. This will be insufficient for achieving a new, more powerful game.

I see so many managers who ignore or are blind to the importance of building a strong context in their team. They manage their teams in a command-control style believing that if they oversee all the details rigorously they’ll eliminate the likelihood of shortfalls and ensure all the key milestones are met. This behavior comes from a paradigm of “I don’t trust my people to own the game and do whatever is needed to ensure success” And, these managers are right! Their behavior is self-fulfilling. It causes people to operate in a mode of fear, resentment and compliance. People do the minimum to get the job done but they don’t apply half their passion, commitment or resourcefulness to the game.

Attending to the context alone will also not sustain because un-channeled enthusiasm will not be productive over time. When people will realize that progress and results are not being achieved they’ll quickly become discouraged and cynical.

I worked with a general manager who was a great guy. He had great character, empathy and integrity. When he stood in front of the troops he always motivated everyone. In short, everyone loved him. But, he wasn’t able to translate his vision into action and results. So, he started to lose his credibility. After a while, people started to roll their eyes when he spoke and it wasn’t long before he was let go.

So, if you want to elevate your team to the next level you have to address both the “content” and “context” aspects associated with the new future direction or strategy you want to bring about.

Are you asking for what you want?

You would think that asking for what you want would be the easiest thing in the world to do. But it isn’t! I see so many people struggling with this.

In my coaching work I often ask people, “So, what do you want?” or “what do you want the outcome to be?” or “what do you want to accomplish?” Many people, when confronted with this direct question, find it hard to spit out a clear answer. Some say, “I know what I want” but when they attempt to describe it they get caught up in a long-winded conceptual description that is very confusing and vague even to them. A few simple follow-up questions such as, “what do you mean by that?” or “how would you know that you achieved that?” are often enough to make people realise they really don’t know what they want.

When people work on articulating their personal collective objectives they often say things like, “We should do this” or “We have to do that.” But, saying “We/I should” is not the same as “We/I want.”  In fact, it is much easier and less powerful to say “We/I should” than “We/I want.” “We/I want” is a declaration. “We/I should” is a description. When we say “We/I want,” we are staking ourselves to the outcome. We are putting our desire at stake. We are making it personal.

Some people suffer from guilt when it comes to declaring what they want. They feel it is arrogant or greedy to want too much or to want certain things. They refrain from explicitly and directly expressing their dreams and desires. Some are so afraid to get a “no!” to their request that they avoid asking altogether. They just convince themselves that “it’s not worth it” to ask. Some people were brought up that it is impolite to directly ask for what you want. If their meal in a restaurant is not served the way they like it or their hotel room is not what they wanted, they will suffer quietly and won’t say anything about it. Some may even have deeper demons. They feel they are not good enough or worthy of having what they really want. So, they stop dreaming altogether.

Some people feel that what they really aspire for and desire is too big, unrealistic and out of their reach. Their mindset is “what’s the point of going after things that are not realistic,” “why set myself up for failure, disappointment and heart break?” So, they make sure to set their desires and expectations low enough in order to not risk failure.

There is also a spiritual aspect to this. The law of attraction, which became popular through Oprah’s show says that people who explicitly express and ask for what they want would become more effective at achieving their desires.

In one of my previous blogs “3 Empowering Quotes About Courage” I wrote about the power of taking a stand. That is a very powerful way to ask for what you want.

It takes courage to dream and believe it. It takes courage to declare what we want, ask for it and pursue it. Yes, we may fail or fall short and that could be disappointing and perhaps upsetting.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many people fail to achieve their goals even in basic areas such as getting a dream job, a promotion or relationship simply because they held back and avoided directly expressing what they want. In my experience, people who repeatedly declared what they want eventually achieved their desired results, or at least a similar, satisfactory result.

Which way would you rather live?



Who is creating and owning your strategy?

Much of management literature on leadership gives executives wrong ideas about how to generate alignment and ownership in their teams. When the leader believes his role is to be lead visionary at the company, he can take that to its logical excess: feeling responsible for coming up with all the key details of the strategy. But that often means the leader will exclude others from shaping the strategy without even noticing it. That will discourage people from embracing the strategy and produce mere compliance.

Leaders often believe that too many participants in the strategy planning process will prolong the process and dilute the clarity, validity, and relevance of the work product. Therefore, they put the creation of the strategy in the hands of a trusted few (often the strategy group or a selected group of confidants), and share the final product with those charged with execution once it is complete or nears completion.

The CEO of one of the firms we worked with, for example, believed the optimal size group should be the heads of his five business lines, and that the heads of the support functions should be excluded. His firm belief was that the HR, IT, Finance and Legal department managers would have little to offer in the strategy conversation, and in fact would impede progress. Over time, however, he became frustrated that these managers were executing the strategy too slowly.

This CEO’s attitude is quite common. Executives who think that way fail to realize the downside of keeping strategy development an exclusive process. The faster the CEO’s chosen leaders generate the content of the strategy, the slower they will generate genuine ownership and accountability within the company’s managers and employees for its fulfillment. In addition, I have seen many times leaders who are excluded from the strategy creation process feeling disrespected, and as a result finding it hard to support their colleagues’ decisions. Even if they don’t express these sentiments they view the strategy as not “their’s.”

Furthermore, a tightly controlled strategy process discounts the experience and expertise these senior professionals could offer to ensure the content of the strategy passes the litmus tests of validity and relevance across the broadest possible spectrum of constituents.

The CEO mentioned above added the heads of the support functions to his strategy-development team after realizing that they could make significant contributions. That sent a message to the organization that people were important and that the strategy development process was becoming more inclusive.

Excluding a number of senior executives from strategy development also undermines the ability of the leadership team as a whole to operate as a cohesive team with a shared purpose. When rallying the troops senior leaders may say the politically-correct things, however people will see through their lack of sincerity and courage. As a result managers and employees will hold back their commitment and play the risk-averse game. In turn, that will slow down the pace of strategy adoption and execution.

When consultants are brought in to create or direct the content of the strategy, no matter how sound they may make it, the probability that people will relate to the strategy as “theirs” and not “ours” is even higher. In fact, I have seen many instances in which, months or even years into the execution of a strategy, it is still referred to as the “X Consulting Firm’s” strategy. We’re not advocating the exclusion of consultants if they are needed. But giving consultants the exclusive task of creating the content will make it difficult for others (be more specific that “others”)  to own it and commit to it.

Any strategy is only as strong as people’s relationship with it. I have seen small leadership teams that created ineffective strategies that people didn’t rally behind and large leadership teams that created powerful strategies that everyone rallied around with passion. The difference was not the number of people participating in the process. It was having the right people around the table who know how to have a robust conversation that resulted in 100% alignment and ownership across the board.

In one of my future blogs I will elaborate more on how to conduct a powerful strategic planning conversation that achieves 100% clarity, alignment and ownership, no matter how many people participate in the discussion.

Stay Tuned…