The Myth of Accountability

By: John Grinnell

Frustration is a familiar feeling to most managers. We’ve all been there--when things just don’t go as planned and we see opportunity lost and costs rising along with our blood pressure. Shouting louder commands doesn’t really work long-term, nor do last-resort threats aimed at “holding ‘em accountable”. Paradoxically, if there were no work issues there would be little, if any, need for managers. So why is there so much frustration? The frustration is due not to the apparent lack of execution, but rather to a common misbelief held by managers that only adds fuel to the frustration fire. The cause is a hidden wrong assumption about human nature and what a manager can and cannot control.

Human beings are volitional. That’s a fancy word for saying that human beings make choices. Sometime we are aware of the choices we make and sometimes we are not. Regardless of what a manager asks employees to do, or even commands or threatens them to do, followers make the choice to comply and motivate themselves—or not to. Contrary to common misconception, what makes humans comply and motivate themselves has very little to do with their managers.

Since accountability is a choice an individual makes, no manager can force a follower to be accountable. Until this is recognized, leaders will operate at less than optimal levels of performance. There are, however, three ways managers can hold themselves accountable that will result in both better performance and less frustration. It will not be easy, though, as it requires real leadership and courage.

  • Managers must hold themselves accountable to work hard helping followers achieve clarity. That is, the followers must fully UNDERSTAND the desired outcome and what is expected of them. This must be tied to the values of the organization, as well as to specific role expectations. COMMUNICATION IS NOT ENOUGH. Telling someone what you want them to do is communication, but ensuring they understand is different and takes more time and deeper conversation.
  • Managers must hold themselves accountable to give followers regular and timely honest feedback on their performance. In our monthly seminar and coaching we recommend that managers use the terms “on-purpose” and “off-purpose.” When a follower works and achieves outcomes in alignment with management expectations, the manager must recognize this by saying, “I noticed X, and that was “on-purpose.” Feedback cannot wait until the end of an assignment; it must be ongoing and adjusted to the developmental level of the follower. Giving positive feedback is easier for most, but managers must also have the courage to focus on “off-purpose” performance when there is misalignment with expectations. It takes courage to do this in a timely manner, and is where most managers fail to hold themselves accountable, which only exacerbates their future frustration.
  • If, after repeated coaching sessions to point out “off-purpose” behavior with little or no change by a follower, a manager must hold themselves accountable for letting the follower go in a respectful and proper way. This too is difficult for most managers and also requires courage, as it is necessary for the success of the organization. Beyond these three steps, there is nothing managers can do to increase accountability within their areas of responsibility because accountability is also up to the follower.

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