The State of Accountability, and Why It Fails

In this highly competitive, ever-changing business climate, accountability continues to be a critical challenge for leaders and organizations alike. As leaders, we aspire to build teams where people are invested in their own growth and development and are advancing the initiatives that are critical to organizational success.

And yet, finger-pointing is at an all-time high, conversations that should be happening in the meeting room are happening anywhere but, and team performance is suffering as a result. While organizations continue to reach for new ways to evolve and stay relevant, teams and their leaders are left struggling to maintain true accountability.

The Current State of Accountability

Ever notice that the word "accountability" is rarely, if ever, used in conversations about success? You never hear "who is accountable for this?" when something goes really well.

These days, the word accountability is more synonymous with blame, culpability, and wrong-doing. The high majority of us attach accountability to "fault."I don't know about you, but this isn't a great approach to get me to jump out of bed and rush into work every day. This doesn't compel me to raise my hand high and say, "Oooh, me! I want to be culpable, I want to be blamed. Sign me up!"

Given this, it should come as no surprise that true accountability is becoming more and more elusive these days. Consider the environment where you work. Are people admitting their mistakes willingly, owning up when things don't go right, or are they pointing fingers at everyone but themselves? Are leaders and employees alike confronting issues as they arise, or are they throwing pity parties and repeating phrases such as, "It's not my fault, it's not my problem, let them figure it out."

At Fierce, we hear this from a significant percentage of leaders who argue they work in a world of little to no accountability and they want a "fix." While employees want the responsibility, leaders say those employees are quick to pass judgment or blame when less than ideal results are produced. No one is taking ownership. Trust is eroding.

And yet, from the many years we've been in the field of leadership development we at Fierce have also heard employees argue the same about leadership: "They aren't leading us to success. They are the problem," and pointing to leadership as the culpable party. It appears we have an epidemic of finger-pointing happening in the workplace with no real solutions/results being produced.

You are tired of the blame-game, tired of watching team members shirk responsibility, side step the tough conversations, or make excuses for why you aren't getting the results you want. Before diving into our strategies, there is something we want leaders to understand—there really is no quick "fix" to accountability. If it were that easy, we wouldn't be experiencing these issues day in and day out.

Instead, we need to look at accountability for what it actually is: a cultural issue. It is systemic. True accountability is not a task to check off the to-do list. It is a mindset. It is an ongoing conversation that we are having with ourselves and those around us through our words, our actions, and our follow through. True accountability starts and ends with how we choose to think and show up every single day.

So why does it fail? Before we go any further, let's take a moment and explore why true Accountability fails in the first place. Perhaps if we can acknowledge why it fails, we can prevent it from happening.

Why Accountability Fails

Remember the Looney Tunes cartoon of the roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote? In each cartoon, Wile E. Coyote utilizes these crazy complex contraptions and elaborate plans to try to catch his prey, the road runner, and he fails every time. He is so heads down in his next great idea and his own perceived genius, he doesn't realize his epic fails until it is far too late—until he is literally off the edge of a cliff, or a boulder is crashing down on his head. In a split moment he goes from "I got you this time bird! to "Oh crap! Not again!"

We at Fierce call this a "suddenly moment." And you'd be surprised just how many of us experience unintended "suddenlys" throughout our day. Instead of tracking ourselves, ensuring we are indeed headed in the direction we want to go and are aware of what is happening around us and to us, we let ourselves believe that there is no need to slow down, no need to pick our head up, until it's too late and we find ourselves just like that darn coyote…off the edge of a cliff."

Consider this: "Our careers, our companies, our personal relationships, our very lives, succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time." The unfortunate part is, most of us don't wake up until suddenly. It's the pain of suddenly that motivates us. Suddenly, a project fails. Suddenly, we lose a key client. Suddenly, our revenue plummets. These are events that leave us standing there saying, who do I blame for this? What went wrong? Who's accountable? These are the moments the fingers start pointing and we go looking for the great and elusive "accountability." But by the time we've hit that suddenly event, accountability is often nowhere to be found.

What we fail to recognize, and if we looked closer we would notice, that accountability is strongly linked to the conversations we are or are not having with those around us.

Accountability fails because we are missing, treading lightly on, or altogether avoiding important conversations with ourselves and those around us:

1. We are not slowing down to clarify expectations and check assumptions. The business world is moving at such a high speed these days, it can be challenging to slow down and ensure that roles and expectations are crystal clear with our team members. In project meetings, when people say "we" will get this done, do you stop them and ask, "Who is we?" Or do you assume they have it figured out?

I remember back in a previous role, I worked for a six-person learning and development team for a 250,000-employee company. On a team like this, it was not uncommon for us to be running full steam ahead and not realize there were two or three people doing the same task. Or on the flip side, we thought someone "had that" when actually, no none had it. I remember casually chatting with one of my peers one morning, and she asked me, "What do you have going on today?" I mentioned that I had a meeting on the books with the VP of operations and she exclaimed, "Oh cool, I do too! What are you meeting with him about?" Come to find out, we were both trying to accomplish the same thing in our meetings with the same person. Luckily we caught it before we wasted the VP's time and embarrassed ourselves trying to conduct two of the same meetings. Like the Wile E. Coyote, we were so focused on the task that we failed to pick our head up and look around to ensure we were on the right track.

As leaders, our assumptions can get the better of us. We blindly trust that someone's got the ball, when in fact, no one has it. Or they don't know they have it. Or we all grab for the same ball without telling each other and we knock heads.

2. We are taking over instead of allowing people to choose accountability. It's one thing for a leader to help solve an issue or a problem, and it's another when a leader jumps in and takes over. If you work for a leader that manages this way, or if you are this kind of leader, it is easy for your team to sit back and say "He/she's got this one. If they need me, they'll ask. Better to just let them do their thing and not get in their way." As a leader, we jump in because we don't want to overload our teams, or we think they're not ready for this, or "It's just easier to do it myself than to teach someone else how to." Our intentions are good. But what you end up with is a team of resentful and disengaged employees who feel they're not being valued for the talent or skill they bring. And accountability takes a hit. 

As a leader, check yourself. Are you allowing people the space to choose accountability? Or are you just taking over?

3. We are being too "nice." People look at me funny when I say this, but there really is such a thing as being too nice as a leader. When it comes to accountability, leaders will often make excuses or validate others' excuses. They create a "soft landing" so as not to hurt someone's feelings or appear "unsupportive." 

For instance, consider the young manager who finds herself frustrated that her team is not delivering projects on deadline. It seems every time someone comes to her with a setback, she validates their reasoning. She practices what she calls empathy because she can see that the reasoning is based in reality—there is some truth to their excuse. She says things like "Oh, I know the budget isn't where it should be," or "I get it, we do have a lot of projects on the table—it makes it a challenge to get things done on time." It's hard not to validate and go down excuse lane with the team. But the excuses, in the end, just lead to a greater lack of the accountability you seek. The truth is, if you don't want the excuses to exist in your workplace, you can't feed into them yourself. Creating a soft landing every time mistakes are made or deadlines are missed will actually tee our teams up for a hard fall.

When something isn't going well, or something is unclear or off-track, highly successful individuals are aware of it—they slow down, and they have the conversation. They don't race off the cliff. The costs of that could be catastrophic.

Ready to take action around accountability? Learn how next week in Part Two: 3 Fierce Strategies to "Fix" Accountability. 

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