Do you believe in the following three sentences?
- Hire the best people, give them clear goals, give them the authority to achieve those goals, and then you get out of their way
- Accountability is holding someone’s feet to the fire
- If everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible
A company is a Sociotop of performers and slackers, introverts, and extroverts, engaged and apathetic, liers and uprights. In this wilderness you want people to be motivated and engaged. The first step is to hold any of these personality types accountable for results.
Accountability is an Individual Commitment
Accountability is a necessary condition for any form of organization to succeed. One of my all-time favorite probing questions is “Who is feeling accountable?”:
- If no one is feeling accountable, get one. Getting someone accountable is more than just assigning accountability. The person must feel a sincere desire to live up to that accountability – the person must commit as wholeheartedly as possible
- If no single person is feeling accountable, get one person accountable. Shared responsibility – a shared urge to achieve something- is valuable and should not be done away with. Still, if push comes to shove individual responsibility is much more powerful in most situations
- If no one can be pinpointed to be accountable, the solution is often not to declare a critical thing that must be achieved a shared responsibility but to redefine the problem to a higher level of abstraction. Usually, this means giving out a broadly defined mission and leaving the way how the work is done to the accountable person
This is a recipe for organizational success that has been proven and proven again since time immemorial. Individual rewards and punishment are still vital, even in the digital revolution.
Making Teams Accountable
In classic organizations, that are high on hierarchy and low those structures supporting self-management, making teams accountable does not work. There is simply not enough alignment of purpose, not enough trust and relationship capital around to make shared commitments work. Therefore, a manager and not a group is made accountable for any more significant task.
In more self-managed organizations, that have invested in the 10 Habits of Organization, making teams accountable becomes a real option. The need for accountability does not go away, but a team pledge becomes as good as an individual pledge to perform.
Making teams instead of individuals accountable is an option, once a high level of maturity, say level 3+ on the scale of liberated organizations is achieved (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations).
An Accountable Environment is a Tough, Results-Oriented Environment
Holding people accountable is a tough job: Using carrots and sticks in a manner that benefits the organization, in the long run, is an art. It requires personal impartiality, empathy, and a long-term perspective.
Rewards and punishment do not need to be material (e.g., money or career progress). Often immaterial rewards and punishments work better. Even the pain of having other people let down might be significant punishment for some people. Turn up the heat by highlighting that failure through individual feedback or a team based post-mortem session. The same goes for rewards. There is power is the simple act of giving praise for good work in public.
It takes an active, engaged manager or co-worker to do the straight-talking. But that is the essence of holding people accountable. In traditional settings, managers are somewhat left to their own devices to do this. In more liberated organizations structured meeting formats (76 Agile Workouts & A Fish) help to deliver feedback regularly, in an environment where it is ok to talk about feelings and failure.
There is No Good Alternative to Tough Accountability
I challenge you to think of any workable alternative to accountability. Taking away accountability means that you end up with two scenarios:
- Seldom: Hippy island, campfire Comfort Zone where people have a good time, and nothing gets done
- Most of the time: Working zombies, 9 to 5, “I am in for the money,” Apathy Zone where people have a bad time and work results are uninspiring
There is no alternative to high accountability in human groups that want to achieve something of higher value. But Accountability alone is not enough. It must be combined with Fairness, or as Edmondson puts it “psychological safety”: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings.
Harvard Business School Professor and psychologist Amy Edmondson sums up the zones in a matrix.
Tough guys, this might come as a shock to you: Psychological safety is universally recognized in the academic literature as being the most fundamental requirement of high performing teams. It’s the number one of the 5 criteria that make a good, high performing team (see Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google).
Beware of Fear induced Accountability
Accountability can be created by fear.
Harsh punishment of failures, by firing, demoting or shaming persons fosters accountability, which is a good thing – is it not? People will certainly take care not to let their responsibilities slip again. This recipe for accountability has been tried successfully over thousands of years.
And no, strengthening accountability by instilling fear is not a good thing. By focussing single-mindedly on accountability and employing the methods of fear, people will:
- Cease to speak-up
- Cover up failures
- Choose unambitious, risk-free targets
- Seek to keep in the shadows: hiding at their desks
- Feel the emotional costs
Accountability is tough, and it needs tough actions – but fear will kill off innovations, learning, and performance.
Combine Fairness with Accountability
Instead of using fear with all its unintended collateral damage, use fairness. Fairness in the organizational, managerial context has three practical dimensions:
A. Distinguish the type of failure
A punishable offense is any failure that is not based on well-intended efforts. The more complex or experimental work-environments are, the more failure is unavoidable. Alas, with the digital revolution work is getting ever more complex and experimental. That means that failure should even be rewarded, as long as the effort was well intended. Thereby risk-taking is incentivized, a fundamental requirement for any entrepreneurial organization.
B. If faced with a failure, be proportionate
Small failures should be embraced as opportunities to learn. Learning occurs through feedback or group reflections with the target of understanding the root cause. Some failures are just a fact of life and can’t be prevented in future, but the totality of all failures an organization makes gives it a good chance to learn and improve.
Big failures are bad. But even those should be framed as opportunities to learn. Consequences need to follow and might be harsh, but always based on the factual, cool-headed analysis of what is to be done to prevent or mitigate those in the future
The credo of iterative ways of working is powerful in that context. By working iteratively towards a target, in small increments, failure can be held small, and learning is immediate. The number of big failures can be reduced. That is the very concept of agile projects methods such as SCRUM or modern Start-up methodology (e.g.,missiles Lean Start-up).
C. Be impartial
Handling failure is always nasty for everyone involved. For a manager (or a self-managed team) this means the willingness to face the facts and dish out the hard truth in an impartial manner.
It takes courage to stand proud and upright on the deck in times of failure and crisis. But standing on the deck, you must, in order to direct the ship.
Even in more liberated organizations, this courage is hard to summon. On the one hand, the level of trust and caring enables much more insight, but on the other hand, people are reluctant to act cool, analytically towards people known well to them.
When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. (David Brin, Author)
Yet Fairness means different things to different people. Like Truth, fairness is often a high minded concept, as Rawls has shown. In the toolset of Liberated Organizations some tools help to push things towards fairness:
- The way feedback is given and built into daily work routines
- The way work is transparent
- The way meetings are run in an inclusive manner
- The way teams are set up to resolve tensions themselves
- The true north that a hierarchy of purpose gives each team and the whole organization
Nothing might be ever genuinely fair. But by building in management practices that implicitly foster fairness, the sense of fairness can be increased for everybody.
The Learning Zone
This is where high accountability meets high psychological safety.
A workplace is the more psychologically safe, the more a team member would agree with the following statements:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is dealt with constructively
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues
- People on this team sometimes do not reject others for being different
- It is safe to take a risk on this team
- It is not difficult to ask other members of this team for help
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized
In short: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings is one where the perceived chances of being yourself and straightforward, without being subject to negative consequences, are high.
Intellectually leaders may endorse psychological safety and the voice and participation it enables, but it is difficult to forgo the raised voices or angry expressions that signify dominance. And for the coworkers is more natural to flee into the safety of silence.
Psychological safety does not imply a cozy environment. On the contrary: Make an environment too cozy and groupthink follows and performance drops. There is a natural tendency to end up in a comfortable environment once you encourage psychological safety. We are primed by Evolution to value warmth, trustworthiness, and morality more than competence. Evolutionary, the intents of others are more critical for survival than the other’s competence. People with evil intends are more dangerous than incompetent humans. Still, America, you shouldn’t let a world-class incompetent get access to missiles that could destroy the world several times over…
The Learning Zone:
- It’s safe to speak up
- It’s safe to admit failures
- It’s safe to ask for help
- Every failure is framed as an opportunity for learning
- But consequences are still tied to results, especially if the effort has not been well-intended
How to Change from one Zone of Engagement to Another
The Apathy Zone is the one dominating most companies today. With disengagement at about 85% of the workforce (according to a yearly, long-term global Gallup study) withdrawal is rampant. Whats even worth, this disengagement level is not different between work and management level: Only 15% of Managers are engaged.
So what is to be done to engage workers and get them out of the Apathy zone?
- Moving an organization towards a comfort zone does not engage anyone. It helps social well-being, but not economic results.
- Using fear to spur people into action is much more effective. Results will come from management by the time-proven approach of management by fear. There is a human cost to this, but economic results will improve compared to apathy or comfort.
The trouble is: The more an organization needs to use the intelligence, creativity, and willingness to experiment and improve the status-quo, the less able management by fear is able to produce positive results. Management by fear violates the fundamental foundation of high performing teams: Psychological safety.
- The silver bullet is to use the principles of Liberated Organizations (The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations) to get from Apathy, with low Accountability and low psychological safety, to high Accountability and high psychological safety.
The downside is: The path towards high accountability and psychological safety is a journey. It can’t be done at once and has to be done in a process. Waypoints for this journey are the maturity levels of Liberated Organizations (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations)
This is what I think. What do you think?
- Amy C. Edmondson “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy,” 2014.
- Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk “Building a psychologically safe workplace,” 2014