What Is Accountability?

At Sam Silverstein, Inc., we help leaders and followers to have powerful, transformative conversations about accountability–conversations that create sustainable, measurable improvements in personal and organizational performance. These conversations usually begin with a question that is, in my experience, too often overlooked: What is accountability… and how does it work?

Initially, the goal of these conversations is for us to become more accountable individually, but ultimately they allow us to build a more accountable organization. Then, through our organization, we can contribute to building greater accountability in our community. During these conversations I ask people to think differently. I want to ask you to think differently, too, as you read these words, because I believe that we have been trained to think of accountability in one direction, when in reality, it is pointing us in a very different direction.

If we want to make accountability a daily reality in our team and in our organization, we must change the way we think.

A big part of the conversation I have with leaders is challenging them to ask different questions than the ones they are used to asking. One of those new questions is: How can accountability produce better results for me and my organization?

Let’s face it. At many organizations, the way leaders and others approach accountability is not producing better results. It is only producing fear, resentment, dysfunction, and disengagement.

What do you think happens to a member of the team when they hear the words “You are going to be held accountable”? Do you really think that makes them more resourceful? More creative? More transparent? More likely to speak up when they see a problem on the horizon?

When I ask leaders to think differently about accountability, what I am asking them to consider is this:

All my research, over a period of more than three decades now, has shown me that everything that we have been told about accountability is wrong.

We have been looking at this from the wrong angle. Yes, we all want our people to do their jobs. We want them to keep their commitments. We want them to get their work done. We want them to work more efficiently. But you know what? In our organizations today, the real problem is not the people.

The real problem is how we as leaders see our people. That is the key. We need to change how we look at our people, and how we think about accountability.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

If we see accountability simply as a means of manipulating our people into doing more, we will reinforce a destructive cultural cycle. And that is what I see out there. I see leaders trying to “hold their people accountable,” trying to use the words “accountable” and “accountability” as weapons to change the behavior of the members of their team. That does not work. It does not make people want to show up early, stay late, or come up with breakthroughs in production, design, or execution. All it does is make them wary of the leaders who are trying to manipulate them.

More to the point, manipulation is not what accountability is really all about.

It is our responsibility as leaders to create an environment, an organizational culture, that inspires and prioritizes accountability, so that people want to be their best and want to contribute at the highest possible levels, without us ever threatening them, cajoling them, or manipulating them. Very often, this means we have to change the very foundations of the working relationships we have created. When we, as leaders, start to see our people differently, we start to treat them differently, and we commit to them differently. When that happens, we get a different result.

The kind of change I am talking about is, at its core, a cultural change. What we are proposing is a radical transition in how leaders see their people, one that creates a culture, and an organization, that actually inspires accountability in team members.

Here is the thing we often overlook about accountability: It can never be mandated. It can only be inspired.

So let’s go back to that first question. What is accountability, really?

I have asked this question of tens of thousands of leaders at organizations all around the world. I have heard thousands of answers in response. And I have consulted more dictionaries, white papers, and business school textbooks than I care to calculate in search of the best, most practical definition. I have never found an answer to this essential question better than this one:

Accountability is keeping your commitments to people.

That is it. That is what accountability means. And if we can just keep our eye on that definition, we will be in the position to transform our relationships, our teams, our organization, and, eventually, the community in which we live. We can use accountability to create massive, measurable improvements in all of those realms of life.

But there is a challenge we must overcome before we can do that. It is this: We have confused things. We have done a masterful job of connecting two words that really shouldn’t be connected: responsibility and accountability.

We are responsible for things, but we are accountable to people.

When we make the mistake of confusing accountability and responsibility, we lose sight of the human relationship and we focus on the transaction. We begin to see and treat people as a means to an end. That is a cultural disaster and a failure of leadership.

No matter how much we may talk about valuing people or putting people first, our team members can always tell when they are being used as means to an end. They know when we value the outcome more than the relationship. They realize when leadership has failed to honor the most important commitments. In short, they can tell when the leader is not accountable.

The conversation about accountable leadership can be boiled down to four words: Accountability starts with us.

Do we want our people to tell us the truth? Then we as leaders must first make a commitment to the truth.

Do we want our people to act with integrity? Then we as leaders must first make a commitment to identify what we value and then live what we value.

Do we want our people to think and act like a team? Then we as leaders must first make a commitment to “It’s all of us.”

Do we want our people to respond loyally, effectively, and resourcefully when times are tough? Then we as leaders must first make a commitment to stand with our people when all hell breaks loose.

Do we want our low-level and mid-level performers to become top performers, and do we want our top performers to stick around? Then we as leaders must first make a commitment to the faults and failures, as well as the opportunities and successes.

Do we want our people to use company resources responsibly? Then we as leaders must first make a commitment to sound financial principles.

Do we want our team and our organization to achieve at the highest level of which it is capable? Then we as leaders must make a commitment to helping individuals to achieve their potential and be their best.

Do we want our people to treat customers well — so well they want to come back for more, and tell others to do business with us? Then we as leaders must make a commitment to a physically and emotionally safe workplace.

Do we want our people to move heaven and earth to keep their commitments to us, and tell us well in advance when they face an unexpected obstacle that keeps them from doing what they said they would do? Then we as leaders must make a commitment to make our word our bond.

Do we want our people to show up inspired and proud to work for our organization? Then we as leaders must make a commitment to a good reputation.

So we have to stop thinking about holding someone else accountable. That is the big shift. As leaders, we want to move this discussion to the next level, the level of helping our people be accountable because we are modeling that accountability first, and we are inspiring accountability in others.

When it comes to accountability, we only get what we give. Organizational accountability always starts with accountable leadership. And accountability is the ultimate competitive advantage.

For more information check out: I Am Accountable

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August 2021
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