Be careful of the two-headed monster!

Accountability is one of these corporate concepts that could make a great difference in almost every aspect of any company’s culture, performance and business results. Unfortunately, in most organizations and teams ‘accountability’ is simply not practiced or effectively promoted and nurtured.

In fact, in most organizations, there seems to be awkwardness when dealing with accountability.

In some organizations accountability is not a big topic. People don’t bring it up and they don’t even expect it. This is simply because they don’t know how to approach it or bring it about.

However, in most modern organizations people do bring up the topic of accountability on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the fact that the concept is being talked about doesn’t mean it is present as a behavior. In fact, in most organizations accountability lives as talk and no action.

People talk about accountability mainly when they want to criticise, complain, blame others or just blow steam when they are frustrated about the fact that things are not moving or changing fast or effective enough, and when they feel that no one is doing anything about it.

Contrary to what leaders often say, they seem to be ok with the lack of clarity and enforcement of accountability. But, at the same time, they also seem to feel personally attached to and identified with their titles and what they are allegedly accountable for.

Because of that, calling people to the carpet and holding people to account, especially when they didn’t do what they promised, is often not an easy or comfortable conversation to have. In fact, even assigning accountability or enrolling people to take it in the first place requires a level of commitment to high performance, clarity, and courage that to be honest even senior leaders often don’t have.

Sometimes when organizations don’t want to confront the topic of who should be accountable for specific activities they come up with a compromise of assigning two leaders to be accountable for the same team, project or task. In most organizations, this model of accountability is typically referred to as ‘two-in-a-box‘.

In most cases, the ‘two-in-a-box accountability’ model is a sellout; the wrong answer for the wrong reasons. More importantly, it doesn’t work!

I was working with the marketing function of a large global technology company. When it came to managing and storing their own data, as well as their customer’s collateral, they had a fragmented model in place, where multiple teams were responsible for managing different parts of the information. Needless to say, this was not efficient, people were confused both internally and externally about roles and responsibilities, and these dynamics caused tensions between team members.

The leader of the organization decided to make a change, so he gathered his senior leadership to discuss who should be accountable for this area. To be fair, managing and sorting this volume of information and data is a complex and challenging task so the discussion wasn’t an easy one and it took time. However, the fact that different leaders had personal agendas about how this should go, only made things more difficult.

The team didn’t reach a conclusion and the senior leader, who didn’t want to dictate a resolution, instead created a two-in-a-box model by assigning the accountability to the two leaders whose jobs were closest this field. These were also the two leaders who competed for the role.

Things only deteriorated from there. Instead of trying to work together the two-in-a-box leaders continued to work in silos without much sharing and collaboration. As a result, the lack of clarity about roles and responsibility only deepened, team members and customers didn’t know who to go to for different information and solutions, resentments grew, and productivity plunged.

Trust me, this is not a one-off scenario.

No matter what rationale senior leaders come up with to explain and justify their compromise, when you strip it down, the reason is typically avoiding the tough conversations and tough decisions, which may upset one leader when you give him/her the accountability and/or upset another leader when you take away his/her accountability.

After all, if there is 100% clarity and transparency, and everyone knows that you are or are not accountable for a certain area, this could have implications on your perceived status and importance in the organization.

So, contrary to what they often publically declare, leaders opt for generalization and vagueness rather than clarity and transparency.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this lack of clarity are dear, including politics, stagnation, and erosion of trust and confidence in senior leadership.

Do you think that if leaders truly confronted and owned the consequences of their lack of decisiveness and clarity they would change their ways?

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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