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Mike Fabich

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Let's kill accountability!

Next to synergy, no other word is more overused and less understood than accountability. The very whisper of it strikes fear and loathing into the hearts and minds of normally rational people. Nearly all of my clients have struggled with “holding people accountable.”

I do not have an issue with the concept of accountability. I only have an issue with the word itself and how it has been misused and misinterpreted. Allow me to explain.

In most companies today, when the word accountability is used the speaker generally means “consequences.” As in, “If you don’t do this /meet that /accomplish this / deliver that, I will cause something bad to happen to you.” The result of this type of coercive exercise of authority is that individuals on the receiving end of the conversation don’t hear accountability; they hear “punishment.” The likely result of any situation where accountability is interpreted as punishment is minimal compliance, not active engagement.

In their book "Life 101," Peter and John-Roger McWilliams point out that the promises we make are always promises to ourselves, although they sometimes involve others. I believe that what they mean is that keeping my word is actually a commitment I make to myself, even if I’ve made the promise to someone else.

Accountability is an intrinsic characteristic, not an externally imposed trait. When viewed through this lens, the role of the leader is simply to help others keep their promises to themselves. We do this through coaching, modeling, mentoring, and creating an environment within which people will want to be accountable. This is real leadership.

I'm not advocating the elimination consequences. There are consequences to every decision that we make. However, if we continue to use the threat of adverse consequences in place of creating and fostering true accountability we’ll end up with a culture of fear, indecisiveness, risk aversion, and disengagement. Fear-driven compliance is not accountability.

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    Feb 26 2013: I hear you. As one who once worked in 100% commission sales, I understood that I am accountable for my income production, thus my quality of life (that I ultimately chose through holding myself accountable). When I worked for others, accountability changed its meaning. My income was not based on my performance (as long as I did enough not to get fired (risk-aversion, compliance, and disengagement).
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    Feb 26 2013: i think you overcomplicate and oversimplify things. accountability and consequences are two distinct categories, and it is easy to show. imagine robinson crusoe on his island. his actions do have consequences, obviously. but he is not accountable, nobody there to call him out on anything. accountability assumes someone else involved.

    on the other hand, the notion that all promises are to ourselves is a meaningless claim. it is similar to saying all actions are selfish. or saying that people don't exist, they are just arbitrary set of atoms. or love is just biochemistry. existence is not an easy thing to grasp or define. but i think we almost all agree that people do exist, and that actions can be classified as altruistic or selfish, even if altruism also manifests itself within the self, and that love is a kind of biochemistry (at least) that is distinct enough from other body/mind functions to have a unique name. similarly, it is meaningful to separate promises into categories, regardless of their "true" or "final" nature. it is very different if i promise myself to stop smoking, or promise my client to deliver a product on monday. the mechanism how it affects my life differs greatly, just as my freedom and available tools. after all, what kind of classification classifies things into one category? it does not add anything to our knowledge.

    i also don't understand how would that counter fear. the consequences of my actions fall upon me (also), so what difference does it make if the promise is to myself or others? the consequence itself is bad enough to be feared.
  • Feb 26 2013: Leaders should lead by example. Not by instilling fear on the staff, not by intimidation. But if one works for a company or an organisation, certain things are expected, and such expectations are justified. If one votes a president and he or she can not bring about progress or change or quality leadership, then such would have to be ready to be changed.
    If a player is redundant in a team, such should not be surprised if she or he is changed.

    But as you have rightly said, a working environment should be a place where one is free to work as in a family but with the discipline of a soldier.
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    Feb 26 2013: I don't disagree.

    The more successful method I think is to invite the individual to participate in the activity, demonstrating the qualities that the boss man want to see, this is done by appealing to the individuals own purpose and how it aligns with the purpose of the group. This require open communication.

    Agree that the biggest transgressions is doing things that we do not agree with.