Accountability is more than just blame

“When successes happen, it is because of a team. When failure happens, it is because an individual is at fault.” I heard this statement in a recent conversation about accountability in organizations. And it broke my heart…even if it’s a common perception in organizations today.

Accountability is not a blame game

In the Genuine Contact way of working, we often spend time with clients looking at the responsibility, accountability, and authority to get work done. These 3 words are sometimes used interchangeably, but we believe they are unique and need to be considered individually and interwoven with one another.

Some Definitions

What do we mean by responsibility, authority, and accountability?

Responsibility

To carry out the accepted job (or individual role)/scope of work (for a team). Fulfilling the tasks and duties that are expected to be done. Responsibility is usually outlined in the position description of the individual and in the statement of the scope of work of the team.  The job is considered well done if the responsibility is fulfilled. In the case of an expected attitude of carrying out the job, the job is further evaluated on the way it has been fulfilled i.e.: in accordance with the values of the company.

Authority

In relation to the position description/team scope of work that outlines the responsibilities, authority to be the ‘author’ of getting the job done, with sufficient freedom for making choices and decisions for successful job fulfilment.  A person or team who has the authority to fulfil the responsibilities and expectations can make those choices and decisions closest to the actual work being done, like on a shop floor or during a customer visit, without having to pause in the process to get permissions. Note that this authority is the decided upon and declared authority to fulfil the position description/expectations.

Accountability

This begins with an obligation to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions as individuals and as a team in relation to the position description/scope of work. This requires personal/team monitoring and adjustment of work fulfilment in relation to the responsibilities and expectations. Beyond holding oneself accountable, an individual and a team are accountable to the balance of the organization for their performance. Being accountable only to the immediate ‘boss’ is one form of holding oneself accountable for performance. If this is the form of accountability, a process for informing the balance of the organization is an important part of the accountability as the organization is reliant on every part of the organization for optimal performance. Another form of accountability, having first been self accountable, is to be accountable directly to the whole organization and not via a hierarchy.

When people are willing to take responsibility for taking up their work, are accountable for the outcomes, and have the authority to get that work done, the conditions are set for good work to happen well and easily.

Read more about how to align responsibility, accountability, and authority in your organization

Going back to the work on clarifying responsibility, accountability, and authority, this idea that success=teamwork and failure=individual responsibility bubbled up in one of these conversations. And, in fact, the participants agreed that (at least for now) in their organization this view on success and failure is true and is not open for change.

Accountability in a Life Nourishing Environment

In the Genuine Contact way of working, we believe that focusing on developing and constantly regenerating a life nourishing environment is a key ingredient to optimal effectiveness. We also believe that people are precious and should be treated as such.

So our view on accountability is not limited to the scope of “when things go wrong, someone is to blame.”

In a life nourishing environment, people are accountable to each other across the whole team or the whole organization. Yes, there can be direct accountability with a superior within the reporting hierarchy of the organization. But it is also about each person in the team being accountable with each other so that the collective work can happen easily and working relationships strengthen.

Accountability is about recognizing and celebrating successes – both those of the individual and the team. It is about monitoring progress with a careful eye so that course correction can happen along the way. In monitoring and adjusting in this way, the focus becomes about how the work is being completed and what adjustments need to be made so that the project can be successfully executed. It takes away from the accountability focus of “failure=blaming an individual.”

It is about clearly communicating results to the team or the organization including lessons learned. And that these lessons learned are harvested, shared, and applied where applicable across the organization, not just with the individual.

Within this framework, it becomes easier for individuals to hold themselves accountable. When they are regularly recognized for their accomplishments and supported to make adjustments when they know they aren’t meeting the goals, it is easier to be honest. With themselves, their teams, and their direct reports.

In this approach, the idea that “when successes happen, it is because of a team and when failure happens, it is because an individual is at fault” transforms into “we are successful individually and collectively and when things start to go sideways, we notice it and figure out how to get back on course – both individually and collectively.”

Photo by Antonio Janeski on Unsplash

Author

  • Rachel Bolton

    Rachel Bolton is the Director of the Genuine Contact Program and Organization. She is also a Senior Consultant at Dalar International Consultancy. Rachel specializes in supporting small business, team and project start-up with a focus on building solid foundations for long-term success. Visit her website to learn more.

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