Holding Others Accountable

The notion of “holding people accountable” has long been amusing and confounding to me.  How can anyone “hold” anyone else accountable?  Our accountabilities accrue to us naturally—some merely as the result of sentience, others as a result of the commitments we make.

I sometimes think that we have confused accountability, responsibility, and consequences—or, more specifically, punishment.  And, if that is true, isn’t the act of “holding someone accountable” really the act of threatening them with punishment if they do not do what they know to be right already—or, even more confoundingly, what we believe they should know to be right?  Must this really be done on a regular—even daily—basis?  To listen to many nominal leaders in organizations, you’d think that it was, and in reading the journals and advisors they turn to for solutions to their most challenging people-related problems, you’d know that it is.

But, this all still seems so odd to me.  I do not mean by any stretch of imagination that we should not attend to accountability in the workplace, or, at least as importantly, in our own lives.  But just as we cannot effectively delegate accountability for our lives without becoming mired in legalisms which increasingly snarl our society, we cannot delegate accountability in the workplace and thereby wash our hands of any culpability in the failure of others whom we depend on in the organization—no matter where we see them in relation to our own position in the hierarchy.

If we can see ourselves as “holding others accountable” it seems debatable that we see ourselves as sharing their fate, and ultimately, all members of an organization have a shared fate.  Organizations are like teams in this way.  The stronger the sense of shared fate, the stronger the team (assuming they are willing to work together toward a desirable future or goal rather than fatalistically accept a shared failure).  The notion of “holding others accountable” tends to contribute to a sense of classism inasmuch as she who is doing the “holding accountable” of another person may be presumed to have power over that other because the other is assumed to owe her an explanation or justification for falling short of the mark. One sees here the specter of elaborate status reports which build a story of plausible deniability for failure rather than tracking of learning and adjustments based on that learning and lessons learned meetings that are checkboxes on forms more than opportunities for getting better together.

The act of “holding” another accountable is at least 90 degrees—if not 180 degrees—away from the notion of supporting that other in his accountabilities—to support him in being response-able and therefore able to fulfill his responsibilities and effectively live an accountable life—inside and outside work.  The energy currently going into “holding others accountable” could be profitably freed up to support them in their accountabilities and assure they are truly response-able (all reasonable impediments are removed) so that the entire organization can be successful—and reasonably self-responsible individuals are able to retain and strengthen their integrity rather than join in a culture of blaming and blame-avoidance.

See also Tobias Mayer and Chris Avery for additional interesting thinking on the topic of accountability.

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