The New Accountability

This article discusses accountability in organizations and how managers can shed the command and control aspects of the old style of accountability in favor of a more humane way of managing, which the author calls ‘ the new accountability’.

“Working for an organization should be an adventure, not an anxious discipline in which everybody is constantly graded for performance”
— Milton R. Saperstein

Do you know what you’re accountable for? Do you need to have your boss constantly remind you of what you have ‘promised’ to deliver? Do you get that churning feeling when you are doing your annual goal setting or having your performance appraised at the end of the year? Do you make promises at the beginning of the year to deliver outcomes that you have little or no control over? Do you want, as Milton Saperstein put it above, to ‘have an adventure’ rather than being constantly graded for performance?

With the recent spate of corporate scandals in North America and beyond, the great ‘accountability’ debate has heated up. Much of the dysfunctional behavior we have witnessed in these scandals can I believe be traced back to two sources:

1. The erroneous belief that a leader, or anyone for that matter, can ‘predict’ and commit to delivering outcomes that he or she has little control over. This pressures leaders to take shortcuts and yes, even ‘rig the results’.

2. Tying salary and bonuses to performance, and using it to motivate performance, when performance is difficult if not impossible to accurately measure and assign to a cause and effect relationship. This encourages people to ‘fudge the results’, using whatever mechanisms are at their disposal to protect their personal interests.

The net result is that in organizations of all types, both public and private, the nature of the game is to ‘look good’, with massive amounts of data being collected and used to ‘prove’ rather than to ‘improve’.

Is there a better way to hold people accountable? In attempting to answer this question, consider the following comparisons of key characteristics of the traditional accountability versus what I call ‘The New Accountability’:

Characteristics The Old Accountability The New Accountability
Focus – Individual  – Individual as part of a vibrant collaborative network
Drivers – External motivation.- Pay and Bonuses, offered up front, act as motivators, which attracts the wrong type of individual to an organization, whose core values may not include honesty.  – Internal motivation.- Clearly identified core values, which include honesty, act as key motivators. Rewards come later. This attracts the type of individual whose core values align with the vision and mission of the organization.
Key Premise – People need to be intimidated and/or bribed to perform.- Carrot and stick principle applied, where people end up getting beaten with a big carrot.  – People are creative, innovative- People are willing to hold themselves accountable for things that they CAN deliver on.
Mechanisms – Management by results.- Linear planning: Annual goal setting and year end performance appraisals are book-ends for reality but have little to do with it.- Fixed goals, fixed plans, little flexibility assume that the world is in a fixed state and can be ‘managed’- Accountability contracts assume that individuals need ‘snoopervising’.  – Management for results.- Hypotheses testing. Balanced Scorecard, constant feedback, continuous refinement of goals/commitments and experimentation are encouraged.- Planning in real time includes all members of the collaborative network and assumes that the world is in a constant state of flux, yet can be understood and worked with.- Continuous feedback, coaching and learning drive improved performance.
Outcomes – One version of the truth- Fear and falsification. Steady erosion of management credibility and individual self esteem.- Minimal learning and growth, both organizationally and individually- Organizational life becomes monochromatic, dull and meaningless: ‘He made budget’  – Many perspectives on the truth.- Massive amounts of candid dialogue, creativity and innovation- Learning, rather than planning, causes success, which very often comes from surprising sources which could not be planned for- Organizational life becomes an invigorating colorful adventure: ‘She made a difference!’

Changing to the new accountability requires a change in culture. It is possible to change an organizational culture, but it requires champions who have a lot of courage, patience and persistence. Are you up to the task? If you are, start by discussing the characteristics above with your work colleagues, and seeing where your organization fits. Are there some erroneous premises in use? What would it take to change them?

Some changes can happen fairly quickly. One organization I worked with surveyed their employees on their pay for performance system and were told quite bluntly that it was actually a de-motivator and detracted from performance. They changed the whole system around and achieved an immediate improvement in morale and results.

The new accountability reflects the new reality…a world that is changing rapidly, where information moves at lightning speed, where shared knowledge and wisdom are the true drivers of success, and where cause and effect is not what we think it is. In this new world, why stay with an outdated, flawed system of accountability?

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