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Redefining Accountability: Creating A Workplace Consonant With Human Values

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by Valerio Pascotto, Jules Goddard and Tim Gallwey

Published in Interconnections Issue 5 2010.

The desire to count, to make a difference and to excel are universal human drives. Yet most companies find it difficult to tap into these motives. This is because they define accountability in a way that most employees find demeaning. As a result, disengagement has becoming a serious problem for many organisations. Only by redefining accountability will companies be able to re-energise the workplace and re-engage their people.

Imagine how a typical employee named John might feel hearing his boss saying, ‘I am holding you accountable for X, Y and Z to be delivered by DD/MM/YYYY!’ Compare this to the feeling John has when he overhears his boss saying, ‘You know, John is someone you can always count on to deliver.’

Now imagine John, looking back on a successfully completed team project, saying to himself, ‘You know, I really made a difference. My work counted!’

Alienation, a concept made famous by Marx, is returning to haunt the world of business and, in particular, the policies and practices of those who rely upon traditional principles of management to ‘get things done through other people’, as the task of management is typically defined. Evidence of high levels of employee disengagement* throughout the industrial world, and particularly in Japan, the nation that built an economic miracle on the foundations of managerialism, is testing the faith that large corporations have long placed in the twin managerial principles of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Several well-received polemics against the standard model of management have recently been published (see below).

What is the problem to which management is meant to be the solution? Managers will tend to answer this question differently from their subordinates. From the perspective of the manager, the art of management lies essentially in the ability to command, control and coordinate the activities of many people in the pursuit of a clear set of objectives. From the perspective of those being managed to achieve these objectives, the need for management is more likely to be seen as the provision of a helpful and supportive infrastructure for the exercise of their talents and aspirations. It happens to be the case that the vast majority of books on management are written by people who cast themselves in the role of managers rather than ‘managees’.

It is not surprising therefore that the ‘rule book’ of management, as it has evolved over the last 100 years or so, takes an unremittingly instrumental approach to the concept of management. The people who are being managed are invariably defined, and treated, as ‘factors of production’ or ‘human capital’ or, more generally, as means to an end. At the heart of this rule book is the idea of accountability.

Holding others accountable for achieving imposed targets is one of the defining attributes of the instrumental approach to managing people. It is closely related to a host of other transactional expressions in the vernacular of modern business life – setting stretch goals, laying down the budget, getting buy-in, building commitment, making the numbers, re-engineering the corporate culture, and changing people’s mindsets. All of these expressions betray a belief that it is morally legitimate as well as economically advantageous for people to be treated as human ‘resources’ and as the passive, malleable material on which management imprints its designs.

This article is based on the premise that placing people at the service of the organisation – rather than the other way round – lies at the heart of the disenchantment and ennui that characterises the work environment of the many millions of people, including managers, who report to bosses.

Counting or belonging

The essence of being human is to want to make a contribution, to count, to be valuable to others and to be proud of one’s stance in life. Honouring these needs and seeking to fulfill them has a direct correlation with motivation, appetite for learning, optimism and self-fulfillment.

The belief that one can make a difference is not based on skill or self-esteem. It comes from being connected with a sense of purpose and a felt desire to matter. It comes from accepting selfownership, commitment to higher-level goals, and integrity. It comes from deciding to be accountable.

The workplace should be the ideal arena in which to meet these needs and express these ideals. However, this is rarely the case. According to a study by Gallup, only 29% of US employees feel truly engaged with their work, defined as ‘working with passion and feeling a profound connection with their company’; the majority, 54%, ‘are essentially “checked out” … sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work’; and 17% are described as ‘actively disengaged … busy acting out their unhappiness … and undermining what their engaged co-workers accomplish’.1 Towers Perrin data for employees in the rest of the industrialised world demonstrate a similar pattern.

The most unproductive emotion in the workplace is fear. This feeling has its roots in the traditional managerial concept of accountability. The phrase ‘I will hold you accountable’ is generally heard as a threat. Only rarely is it experienced in a positive light, such as an invitation to excel or the chance to make a difference. As such, the concept of accountability is burdened with the connotation of externally imposed goals and autocratically-set standards, over-laden with threats of consequences for non-compliance or under-achievement.

To ‘hold accountable’ is something I prefer to do unto others than to have done unto me. Most individuals think of accountability with apprehension if not creative avoidance. Of all the terms in the managerial lexicon, ‘accountability’ is the one that stands most in need of redefinition.

Towards a redefinition of accountability

For accountability to be a productive concept, we must move from a limited and one-way view of it as ‘holding accountable’ as we saw above, to one where it is based upon a sense of belonging and a desire to make a difference. Thus, accountability is based upon a relationship of trust and discussion and not of hierarchy. It is therefore, a relationship of quality, and not necessarily just of quantity. When we believe that we can make a difference, what at first glance might seem impossible becomes possible. Conversely, when we do not believe that we can change things for the better, even the simplest of tasks becomes arduous and the most banal excuses are made. Resistance to any change, however trivial, becomes endemic. As a result, values of integrity and accountability quickly unravel. They are eventually replaced by a careless disregard for others, and an attitude that places short-term expediency above longer-term objectives.

We are so inherently bent on wanting to count and to be counted upon that, paradoxically, as we lose confidence in our ability to excel we move to the opposite extreme of apathy, laziness and indifference.

Redefining accountability in a way that motivates people will result in an environment of enthusiasm for much greater accountability and responsibility.

The five disciplines of a redefined accountability Working closely with many teams in many companies over many years, we have identified five disciplines that are critical to a redefined accountability.

  • Equal responsibility

In working together, each member of the team agrees to take full responsibility for the success and/or failure of the team. The evidence of equal responsibility is fairly easy to observe: such as each person feeling personally responsible for being clear about the goal, for supporting the integrity of the team and for making the necessary changes for achieving the goal. There is comfort and pride in using straight talk. When difficulties arise, rather than pointing fingers and allocating blame, each individual strives to identify what he/she could have done differently. In talking with such a team, one discovers that individuals know they can make a difference and that each voice counts.

  • Conscious thought and action

A second critical discipline is the commitment by each team member to look for and support clarity whenever and wherever it emerges. It means attending carefully to the consequences of one’s words and actions, and of one’s contribution to the team’s objectives. When a team operates with such a discipline, words and actions are deliberate; they are directed towards the common goal. Individuals are mindful of their influence on other team members. Successful adoption of this discipline can be tested both by noticing how often individuals introduce or tolerate irrelevant diversions and distractions, and by noticing how readily team members admit to not being clear about a goal or proposed course of action.

  • Honouring agreements

The importance of keeping one’s word is fundamental. Every successful team we have worked with over the last twenty years has placed this discipline at the heart of their success. The story of the boy ‘crying wolf’ is a universal fable. The backbone of being both valuable and accountable is knowing that one’s word counts. This requires acting from conscious choice, keeping one’s agreements, meaning what one says and saying what one means.

  • The reach for excellence

With the first three disciplines in place, it is much easier to embrace the discipline of becoming the very best we can be. The foundation of being human rests on an inherent desire for excellence. Extraordinary performance starts when we recognize our common need to excel. It is then nurtured by diligence and by the application of the other disciplines of working together in accordance with our purpose.

  • Helping each other

The essence of a team is the recognition by its members that they are each part of a whole and necessary to achieving the whole. From that recognition comes the care that each member invests in the success of every other member and the respect for each other’s roles, strengths and talents. When everyone knows that everyone else can be counted upon to offer help when needed and to root wholeheartedly for the success of the team, the result is a level of cohesion that renders achievable almost any task that the team chooses to undertake.

Common sources of interference

Many teams recognize that these five disciplines are both desirable and important; but they find them difficult to translate into everyday practice. Why do even the most motivated people find it so hard to adopt these disciplines?

Over many years of working with management teams in many organisations, we have observed a small number of common behaviour patterns that interfere with accountability. Using this typology, it is possible to make a rough assessment of the state of health of the accountability of an individual, a team or an entire organisation.

  • Habituation

Possibly the greatest sources of interference are our unconscious ineffective habits. We get stuck in patterns of unproductive behaviour either because we are not conscious of them, or because we no longer believe that we can change them. Entire teams, even companies, form such futile unconscious habits. As these habits become ingrained, so they are increasingly tolerated. They morph into the corporate culture and can go undetected for years, causing significant damage to productivity. As this hidden culture solidifies, so the experience of work becomes frustrating and stressful. It is often contaminated by politics. Self-confidence, the joy of learning, and the striving for excellence are either forgotten or deemed to be unrealistic expectations.

In such an environment, responsibility and accountability become associated, not with pride and aspiration, but with fear and even punishment at the hands of those who have given themselves the right to regulate the behaviour of others. This results in widespread, often unconscious resistance to any idea of anyone accepting any accountability for anything. The symptoms of such an abdication of responsibility are self-evident: a culture of excuses, blame, procrastination, conflict, mediocrity and shortterm decision-making.

  • Playing politics

When individuals take up positions based on personal preferences before clarity has been achieved within the group about how best to attain their goal, politics is invariably the result. Clarity is then further muddied as one statement of personal preference gives rise to another. Soon the focus has shifted from a search for the best solution to a melee in which everyone stubbornly defends their own stated position – not because they necessarily believe strongly in it, but because their ego is at stake. As a result, allies are sought and camps are formed as individuals join the parties that best represent their own opinions. Once camps are established, politics becomes the process by which opinions are influenced, coalitions are formed and decisions are made.

  • Lip service

Of all our unconscious habits, probably the most difficult to rectify is what is commonly called ‘lip service’. This is defined in English as insincere commitment or allegiance without conviction. The practice of lip service undermines the very fabric of ethics. Without sincerity of commitment, accountability becomes impossible. The intention to keep one’s word when one gives it is the basis of effective collective action. It is closely related to integrity and is universally regarded as an essential social virtue. Contracts based on handshakes are often thought of as ‘the good old days’, a time when one could count on someone’s word. Thousands of years after his death, Socrates is still remembered in many cultures as an example of integrity. He chose to honour his word even at the expense of his own life.

A culture based on litigation where lawyers are paid to protect integrity is rarely perceived as laudable. Yet, it is rare to find ‘keeping one’s word’ amongst the core values of a company. Where it is, lip service to this ideal often prevails. In our work with managers, we often ask them to notice how many commitments are made each day. They are then asked to record the percentage of them that are honoured. Seeing how routinely such agreements are broken, even when the parties to the agreement know that a record is being kept of their behaviour, surprises and shocks the participants. Even more alarming in some ways is how tolerant of broken commitments most of us are most of the time. Those individuals who challenge this tolerance are often perceived as nagging, petty, and impractical.

  • Fear of judgment

Paying lip service to company values and goals is often the result of a fear of being judged by others. Many employees of Enron reported that the only way to gain promotion was to lie and deceive. Some at Arthur Anderson felt they could not afford to give a true account of their client’s financial performance for fear of losing their business. What was at work here was not so much a fear for their own position as a fear of stepping out of line and attracting the opprobrium of peers and colleagues.

Interferences are accentuated when unproductive habits are allowed to go unchecked. The more a habit is tolerated, the more it builds momentum and the more unconscious it becomes. As the inevitable breakdowns caused by the unconscious habit emerge, the fear of judgment is compounded by the behaviour of those in authority, who react by bringing in stricter regulations and harsher consequences.

  • Social loafing

This involves creative ways of offloading one’s obligations onto others. It results in a general lowering of standards and efforts. Loafing tends to occur when individuals lose the sense of how their contributions might count or when the overall goal does not seem to matter. When people feel that they don’t count, they seize every opportunity to loaf and to get away with the minimum level of co-operative effort.

  • Indulging in ambiguities

When a task is complex, ambiguity is likely to be present. Faced with the discomfort of ambiguity, it is common for team members to ‘invent clarity’ by stating their interpretations of the situation as certainties. Meanings are attributed to situations without due attention to the facts of the case. This shortcut often leads to disaster. Another reaction is to ignore the ambiguity entirely. The result is a false sense of certainty. Clarity is sacrificed, responsibility is abdicated, and poor decisions are made just for the sake of making any decision rather than none.

  • Gross tolerance of ineffective communication

It is a well-observed trait of most meetings that speakers say things that bear no relationship to what other speakers have said. For example, when one person speaks, it often has little or nothing to do with the preceding speaker. Instead of building on the preceding argument, ideas are presented that are quite unrelated to the drift or purpose of the conversation. Unsupported statements go unchallenged. Invitations to explore a particular idea or to debate a critical assumption or to check understanding or to summarise areas of agreement are rare. Lack of clarity is not so much addressed as ignored. Listening to others gives way to ‘re-loading’ as each speaker advocates his or her point of view with even greater force. The absence of listening can reach extraordinary levels of disrespect, with individuals routinely interrupting each other and repeating what has already been said.

  • Happy family syndrome

Some CEOs pride themselves on creating a family environment within their organisation. For all its apparent benefits, this can foster a misunderstanding of the context of a working organisation. The primary function of a family is to provide mutual support and love. The primary function of a company is to survive as a profitable business. In a loving family, when a child comes home from school with poor marks in arithmetic, he or she is more likely to find sympathy and help rather than admonishment and rejection. A similar response to an under-performing employee is likely to be inappropriate. If a business fails, it ceases to exist. Executives who are smitten by the ‘happy family’ syndrome are tempted to avoid making discriminative judgments about their people, to turn a blind eye to poor performers under the guise of ‘fairness’ and thereby to risk everyone’s jobs by protecting a few. By not giving direct and honest feedback to colleagues, the high standards necessary to maintain a flourishing business are jeopardised.

Steps towards building a new accountability

  • Step 1: An accurate, non-judgmental assessment

The first step for a manager when considering change of any kind is to refrain from judgment and simply describe the prevailing state of affairs. Non-judgmental observation is especially necessary when determining the ‘accountability’ of an individual or of a department or of an organisation. Because ‘accountability’ is so linked to one’s sense of integrity and competence, measuring its state of health through the lenses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ will only yield a partial and distorted picture. To be successful and productive, the assessment must be made for the sole purpose of accuracy.

The five disciplines and the eight sources of interference described above can be used as assessment criteria. It is often best to include third party interviews in such an assessment for the sake of objectivity.

An interesting exercise for any member of an organisation reading this article would be to take each of the five disciplines and each of the eight common interferences and score, on a 1–10 scale, the presence of each in yourself and your organisation. To the extent your scores on the disciplines are low and high on the interferences, the need for a serious change initiative may be called for. The same exercise could be done by any team at any level in the organization to assess its state of health.

  • Step 2: Establish clarity of desired outcome

Once an accurate assessment is achieved, a decision needs to be made whether or not to make a change. This decision must be based upon the purpose of the organisation and the desired direction of change, captured in a clear picture of the intended outcome. If either the clarity of the proposed change or the understanding of how such a change serves the corporate purpose is missing, the organisation can hope for little more than lip service to the change.

It is a challenging task to bring together the divergent perceptions of ‘what is’ to form a unified sense of ‘what could be’ that inspires every member of the team and that earns their personal commitment. However, this step is indispensable to success. It requires every individual to take responsibility for being clear about the goal, and for ensuring that everyone has a common understanding of the goal.

  • Step 3: Evoke emotional engagement

For an organisation to be confident that it can overcome the obstacles that invariably threaten any programme of change, it must connect individuals and teams together as a ‘unified movement serving a noble cause’. Such a cause will be defined by the participants as a higher level goal than corporate survival or business profitability. Without taking this step in earnest, the momentum of unconscious habits will almost certainly prevail.

When people have a clear goal, have the desire to reach the goal and have an awareness of where they are in relation to the goal, change is natural. In the journey towards the goal, a change of scenery is greeted with enthusiasm by every traveller. It is an indication that there is progress toward the destination.

  • Step 4: Design, catalyse and coach the change process

Whether at the level of an individual, a team, or an organisation, realising the new accountability requires a change process. Having a clear sense of the desired outcome and having an accurate assessment of the current state of play will help. Nevertheless, profound changes in thinking and habit seldom occur unless they are supported by a conscious process of change.

Behavioural change has the best chance of being successful when managers within the company seek support from resources external to the organisation. Outsiders bring a fresh perspective. They do not wear the same ‘cultural glasses’.

To make a shift that embraces the five disciplines of the new accountability takes more than a cognitive understanding of the principles. It is a shift that requires an experience-based learning environment where the disciplines can be practised with the help of facilitators. Such a process can supply both the catalyst for the launch of such a programme, and the coaching for ensuring that the five disciplines continue to evolve. Coaching can also act as protection against the encroachment of interferences.

Towards organisational health

We have argued that organisational performance will benefit from a self-motivated change process that incorporates the five disciplines we have described. This involves a fundamental redefinition of accountability at work, based on each employee’s commitment to enjoy and to learn from the work experience and to help the team to perform with excellence. This definition embraces the needs of both the individual and the team. The benefits of self-regulation become obvious, while the fears and pressures associated with the old definition of accountability diminish. The result is an inevitable resurgence of human dignity and joy, accompanied by individual and team effectiveness.

High standards of excellence become a personal aspiration, not a fear-based response to external pressures. Each person accepts full responsibility for, and participates in, the success of the group. Individuals are willing to question others without blame. They welcome feedback because it helps them to avoid unconscious habits that can lead to negative consequences. Clarity and purposefulness, above all, characterise the work that is performed within this new framework.


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