What Accounts for the Accountability Mess?


Accountability is highly subjective. Its meaning depends on whether we’re at the giving or receiving end. Many of us have been lashed with the accountability whip wielded by a blundering manager playing “gotcha games.”

Often, accountability is a search for who to punish. The Blame Game and finger-pointing turns problem-solving and performance issues into fault-finding.

Feedback Fear and Measurement Whacking Sticks

In way too many organizations, measurement is a big stick used in The Blame Game. Measurement by whacking around thumps organization morale, smacks team effectiveness, and smashes improvement efforts. This cultivates a culture of gaming measurement and ducking accountability.

Used effectively, key measurements provide vital feedback that shows what’s working and what’s not. Key measurements are essential tools for improving performance. Choosing the right measurement tools is vital. But how skillfully any tool is used determines whether it hurts or helps.

How leaders ask for and act on feedback about their leadership effectiveness establishes the organization’s feedback and accountability culture. Poor leaders avoid and often shut down feedback about their leadership effectiveness. Ineffective leaders are allergic to feedback and blissfully ignorant. You can take a quick self-assessment to give yourself feedback on your feedback here.

The most powerful and accurate feedback is a well-designed 360 assessment process with strengths-based coaching. Click here to peruse a series of research and resources on this approach, including how to How to Avoid Spinning into the 360 Degree Feedback Death Spiral.

Swinging the Performance Management Stick

What’s your experience with performance reviews? How energizing and helpful are they — to give or receive? Do performance reviews strengthen, stunt, or stall development and personal growth? Do you look forward to performance discussions with excitement or dread?

Theory X managers use performance management ratings to “hold people accountable.” Usually, that’s a form of “beatings will continue until performance improves.” They assume talent is fixed and needs to be graded, weeded out, or promoted.

Theory Y leaders do much less evaluating and much more coaching. They believe people are self-motivated and self-controlled, want to take pride in their work, be on a winning team, and are trusted adults. Coaching leaders don’t patronize; they partner.

Studies show that performance appraisals improve performance 1/3 of the time, reduce it 1/3 of the time, and have no effect on the other 1/3 of the time. Clearly, we have a problem that adds to the accountability mess. The abysmal performance of performance management caused traditional performance appraisals to be abandoned by a third of U.S. firms.

A vital question is, what’s the point of performance management? More effective leaders know that conversations need to shift from accountability (which usually means “rank, spank, and yank”) to coaching, growing, and developing. And the best leaders hold themselves accountable by asking for feedback on their leadership effectiveness.

Looking for What, Not Who Went Wrong

Putting a good person into a bad system or process usually sets that person up for failure — and blame. “The 85/15 Rule” emerged from decades of root cause analysis on service/quality breakdowns. About 85% of the time, the fault is caused by the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the breakdowns can be traced back to someone who didn’t care or wasn’t conscientious enough.

Too many accountability crusades are blamestorming searches for the guilty. They’re focused on “who” rather than “what” went wrong. Symptom carriers of the organization’s system and process problems are held “accountable.” Fixing the blame rather than the problem fosters a culture of fear, CYA, and finger-pointing.

The last person to touch the process and manifest the problem is often the tip of the iceberg. They may be burned out by continuous service problems, overwhelmed by workload or complaints, turned off by a “snoopervising” micromanager, given shoddy materials, tools, or information, not effectively coached and given feedback, held personally accountable for team efforts, measured (and rewarded or punished) for collective results, unsure how to resolve issues and jointly fix a process with other functions, or not trained on how or where to go for help.

All this stems from the system, processes, structure, or culture of the organization. And…who’s accountable for that?

Power Point: Who’s to Blame for this Mess?


Leaders are the culture’s power source. Building a culture of accountability starts with leaders looking in the mirror. Leaders can’t get others to take more accountability unless they step up and take accountability for their leadership and the culture they’ve created.

A department, division, or organization’s culture ripples out from its leadership team. Organizational behavior reflects leadership team behavior. A team that wants to change “them” needs to start with a deep look in the mirror to change “us.”

This takes courage. Courage is the foundation of leadership. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed courage was the foundation of all human virtues because it made the others possible. That certainly applies to holding ourselves accountable and taking responsibility for our personal and collective behavior.

Do we have courageous conversations? Do we seek feedback that we don’t want to hear? Are we open to opposing views or approaches? Do we speak up? What about our courage to address team or organization issues that are impeding progress? It’s much easier to be quiet and just go along. And people see those accountability messages loud and clear.

Too many managers fail to recognize how their accountability words and actions aren’t in sync — like this sign on the door of a repair shop — WE CAN REPAIR ANYTHING (please knock hard on the door…the buzzer doesn’t work).

The post What Accounts for the Accountability Mess? appeared first on The Clemmer Group.

For over three decades, Jim Clemmer’s keynote presentations, workshops, management team retreats, seven bestselling books, articles, and blog have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The Clemmer Group is the Canadian strategic partner of Zenger Folkman, an award-winning firm best known for its unique evidence-driven, strengths-based system for developing extraordinary leaders and demonstrating the performance impact they have on organizations. Check out www.clemmergroup.com for upcoming webinars and workshops.

Website: http://www.clemmergroup.com

Leave a Reply