Let’s Kill Accountability!

I would like to strike the word accountability from the current language of business.  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 claim that they struggle 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 “adverse 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 that we do away with 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.

So let’s kill accountability. Then we can replace it with real leadership.  That’s a topic for another post.

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