When "Accountability" Doesn't Really Accomplish Much

I've long believed that "accountability" - or at least the way we talk about it - is over-rated. When someone says there is "accountability" for a decision, it typically means that there is a negative consequence if that decision doesn't work out. This is, and always has been, a politically motivated attempt to protect certain people in the organization from poor outcomes.

The best, most concise explanation of why this doesn't work came from an unlikely source this morning - a baseball blog. Craig Calcaterra (who is an excellent baseball writer, btw) posted a short piece that links to a longer piece in The Globe (paywallm 1st 5 articles per month are free) on former Red Sox GM/now Columbia Executive-in-Residence Ben Cherrington who was, probably unfairly, blamed for a bunch of bad baseball decisions during his time in Boston. And then he was fired. Of course. Because someone had to be "accountable" for all of those losing seasons.

 Calcaterra correctly points out why this is a bad organizational policy.

Where ideas start and where they end up in organizations involve a lot of weird passive-aggressive dancing, with power being exercised in some cases and merely anticipated in others, causing people to do things in such a way that blame is a nebulous matter.
— Craig Calcaterra

That's exactly right. 

I'm not arguing he should have been fired. I'm just saying that poor outcomes that inevitably lead to dismissing an employee should be handled with more nuance. Accountability shouldn't be about knowing who to pin bad decisions on; it should be about knowing who to turn to when a negative outcome needs to be fixed.

Big (and publicly traded) organizations have certain political realities to deal with, but smaller organizations with more centralized control, should not model "accountability" after sports franchises or political offices. Accountability is about being future-looking - about creating ownership to make the right decisions, take the appropriate risks, and fixing problems that arise either as a result of these decisions or external to them.

When a problem occurs, the question to ask should be "who is best positioned to fix this." When analyzed without bias or anger, this is often the person who created the problem in the first place. Because many decisions we make are hard and, frankly are a game of statistics. There is rarely a path that will yield the correct result 100% of the time - in the best case, there is probably a 70% or 80% chance of success. In the worst cases, there may be a smaller chance of success - perhaps 10%, but the leadership team recognizes that there is limited downside or decides that the downside risk is far outweighed by the potential benefit.

And then there is the question of how the success or failure of a decision is measured. Do you decide whether something it successful right away? After one series of tweaks? After three tweaks? After one overhaul? After a pivot?

Sometimes staffing changes are necessary but basing them on one or two poor outcomes is usually short-sighted. If people with the right judgement are put in positions of influence, there is an open dialogue with them about when to make big bets or small bets, and the organization supports them in fixing issues that arise rather than blaming them, the chances of long-term success are much greater. And only when it is determined that level of judgement or diligence is not present should staffing changes be pursued.

Re-framing what accountability means to your organization is necessary for building a sustainable, forward-looking team, and recognizing the dynamics that accountability creates is critical to building the right staff to bring the organization to the next level.

Stephen Ronan

Ronan Consulting Group, 06907

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