Accountability (1 of 3): What Does It Really Mean?

This is the first in a series of 3 articles dealing with Accountability: What Does It Really Mean, How Accountability is Achieved, and finally Understanding How Accountability is Shared.

Accountability Defined: It is about dialog, not due dates

Accountability is a funny word. Though everyone thinks accountability is a good thing and wants to have more of it, few people really understand what it is and how to improve or implement accountability. The word has an appealing, high-minded ring to it, but its meaning is imprecise and not well understood.

Interestingly, the dictionary defines accountability as “the state of being answerable: obliged to report, explain, or justify something.” It is mostly about the dialog between two people and less about being responsible for completing a delivery.

Accountability fundamentally applies to a conversation between a customer or requester and a performer whom they have requested a service from. The customer desires to “hold the performer accountable” for completing the delivery. In most business relationships, however, this sense of accountability is actually implicit and weak. Executives and managers make requests of their staff and colleagues and want to hold them accountable for satisfactory delivery. But the conversation surrounding the request is vague and (deliberately) imprecise. If queried, each party to the conversation would probably concur that a measure of accountability was present in their relationship though neither directly spoke or committed to a timetable or the output / results. The performer wants to preserve as much “wiggle room” for the satisfactory delivery as possible, and the requester does not feel comfortable pressing for a formal commitment.

Thereafter the notion of accountability devolves into an accounting exercise. Software solutions that purport to address/improve accountability are merely systems for entering and reporting on due dates.
Most people think of managing accountability as a monitoring and enforcement approach “I will keep good track of all the assignments I have made to other people so I can hold them accountable later”. There are three fundamental concerns with this notion of accountability.

• First, it has a very top-down, autocratic approach where the emphasis is rooted in a heavy “did you do it?” question. Enforcement is implied and the underlying punitive nature is undeniable. This is obviously not the mood one would wish to create with a partner or collaborator. Small wonder then that neither the performer nor the customer really wants to explicitly talk in these terms. Moreover, the relationship being built between the two parties in this way is not felt as at all egalitarian; one is up and one is down. This mood certainly goes against the grain of the sensibilities prevalent in the modern work force.

• Secondly, this approach is one-sided. The customer is the one keeping track. There is no explicit response from the performer, “no catching the ball”, as it were, that has been tossed to them. The manager does all the checking and following up. The actual burden of managing the accountability is on the customer / requester.

• Lastly and most importantly there is little evidence that such accounting actually leads to improved performance. Just monitoring due dates does not increase on-time deliveries.

A better notion of accountability draws from its actual definition around the term “answerable”. What is important is the “answer” from the performer. The quality of the dialog between the parties is WAY more important than recording the assigned due date.

This dialog starts with an explicit request that needs to be met with an explicit response. A conversation ensues and a specific agreement about expected results and due date is crafted. [Note: The explicit nature of this conversation presumes that all parties have sufficient courage to engage honestly with each other. Courage is an essential aspect to requesting and negotiating. Honesty should not be taken for granted. The need for interpersonal courage will be discussed in a future blog.] However, the conversation does not stop there and “wait” for the due date to arrive. On the contrary, the conversation, thus started, continues throughout the delivery period during which both parties stay in close touch about progress toward the due date. Having responded directly to the request and committed to the outcome, the performer has, in fact, taken on the accountability for delivery.

The implicit dialog of the manager saying “I am counting on you to deliver …” has been replaced with the performer saying “You can count on me…”. The performer has “caught the ball” and is obliged to keep the customer up-to-date on any news or concerns that might threaten the completion of the request. The burden of accountability has shifted to the performer which is where it really belongs. This shift has a profound effect on improving organization performance.

In the next article, I will continue this discussion with some specific tactics for how to build accountability that leads to improved performance.

2 responses to “Accountability (1 of 3): What Does It Really Mean?

  1. Hi Dave,
    My Randon House Unabridged has the same definition you quote, but I like the Merriam Webster definition of accountability better: the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

    I like it because it highlights the important distinction between accountability due to obligation, vs accountability due to having taken responsibility.

    I am building on this distinction in the new workshop I’m getting ready to pilot on commitment based project management.

    Thanks for these thoughtful blogs.

  2. Timm,

    Thanks for the note. I like the extra point you’re making with the MWebster definition. The performer has consciously and explicitly accepted responsibility for an action. Conversely, I assume you mean that “accountability due to obligation” is the sense that accountability is foisted on you simply by virtue of your position relative to the requester (e.g. the army private is obliged to be accountable for following orders). The first instance requires a two-sided conversation; the second does not.

    The MW definition points to the critical portion of the conversation at the beginning where the commitment is formed. The Random House definition points to the importance of the quality of the whole dialog between two people. In both cases we are attempting to distinguish the real definition of accountability from the commonly held notion that it has to do with tracking/accounting for deliveries and due dates.


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