Jim Taggart

4 years ago · 3 min. reading time · visibility 0 ·

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Accountability and the Role of Leadership: Are You Sharing the Power?

Accountability has become one of those words used in organizations that make people wince. Many years ago, when I was getting initiated to the leadership field, it seemed that almost every second word emanating from people’s mouths was ‘accountability,’ tangled up with another popular word: ‘empowerment.’ The two became almost brother and sister, rolling off people’s tongues as if to signify their enlightened understanding of leadership. However, if accountability is to have any substantive mean in organizations, a lot of work is needed to restore its credibility.

To begin with, we need to understand just what is meant by the word accountability. Perhaps we need to reposition it in the vocabulary of organizations. In some ways it’s become a pejorative word. When organizations introduce initiatives aimed at empowering employees while ensuring that they are accountable, they’re in effect bureaucratizing the effort to foster initiative.

To engage the hearts and minds of people requires, among other things, the creation of an environment in which they want to take initiative, be creative, and accept the consequences for their actions. This points to the dominating factor in organizations, and it is leadership: how it is espoused and practiced.

To advocate accountability among employees while in the same breath not modelling the necessary behaviours undermines management’s efforts. When employees truly believe that they’re able to share power and decision-making, there will be the beginning of a torrential release of creativity and innovation.

People cannot be empowered; instead, people empower themselves. Creativity and innovation will only happen when people feel safe to experiment and take calculated risks to improve work processes and serve clients and citizens better.

It’s important to underscore the distinction between empowering people and people empowering themselves. Too often, we hear about staff being empowered by managers. But are people really ‘empowered?’ Or is it a process of self-initiation, in which the individual personally assumes the responsibility to take initiative and to motivate herself? Managers set context, an enabling environment. This is a cornerstone role of managerial leadership.

In his book The Oz Principle: Getting Results through Accountability Roger Connors presents a definition of accountability:

“An attitude of continually asking ‘what else can I do to rise above my circumstances and achieve the results I desire?’ It is the process of ‘seeing it, owning it, solving it, and doing it.’ It requires a level of ownership that includes making, keeping, and proactively answering for personal commitments. It is a perspective that embraces both current and future efforts rather than reactive and historical explanation.”

The essence of what he’s saying is that we need a mental shift in how we approach accountability. Trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions only leads to further frustration and stress on the part of everyone. Management becomes frustrated with how long it’s taking to change behaviours and to see results. Staff are suspicious of new initiatives, riding them out until new ones come along. Middle management feels torn between the two groups as it tries to respond to the needs of both. The consequence is stressed out middle managers.

To transcend to a new state of co-creation means that the culture of victimization must end. Connors describes this culture as the refusal to take ownership for one’s behaviour and actions. Excuses are the norm, with blame being attributed to wherever it flows the easiest. There’s a creative tension between the rights of employees, which is well established, versus responsibility and accountability, which is less well developed.

Until we collectively achieve a common understanding of the issues surrounding accountability, it’ll be very difficult to realize the creation of strong learning cultures in organizations. Here are six questions that will contribute to the dialogue that’s necessary in organizations. Of particular importance is to approach such a dialogue from an integrated perspective, in which the elements of the learning organization are included.

1. How do we get off the turntable and begin to collectively co-create organizations that are founded, in part, on the principle of personal responsibility and accountability?

2. If we fail to embrace the idea of individual accountability, what is the impact on service to customers and clients?

3. What are the long-term consequences of not paying heed to this and initiating a dialogue and action to make change?

4. What is the role of managerial leadership in this regard. In particular, what are the consequences when managers abandon their staff who take risks but who make mistakes?

5. How do we distance ourselves from a culture of blame and embrace a culture of learning from mistakes?

6. How do we transcend from the level of personal accountability to one of mutual accountability (i.e., among teams)?

As we proceed along the path towards personal and collective enlightenment, we need to continually remind ourselves of the interconnection among the many elements that are affecting the future of our organizations. Accountability is intertwined with the components that form the basis for the creation of learning cultures. Of importance is that we must constantly remind ourselves that accountability is not a thing; rather, it’s about people. And as such, accountability needs to become part of this important conversation.

“Accountability:” It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.
—Molière (French playwright and actor)


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Zacharias 🐝 Voulgaris

4 years ago #11

Love the Moliere quote! Also, accountability is probably the least appreciated quality in an organization, particularly in management. Perhaps that's something that needs to be remedied...

Jim Taggart

4 years ago #10

Yes to the turntable effect. It's akin to saying, that's how things are done around here. Speaks volumes to corporate culture.

Jim Taggart

4 years ago #9

I hear what you're saying about using the word "ownership" instead of accountability, especially in a small business setting. Indeed, if employees have a financial stake in the business, then it's even more appropriate to use ownership.

Harvey Lloyd

4 years ago #8

Thanks. Really enjoyed.

Harvey Lloyd

4 years ago #7

I will have to admit the early years of leadership were really about accountability. I found out the hard way. Great post and Conner’s book is now on the list I would add one thought. I believe that people have become accustomed to the “turntable”. This adds layers for leadership who are attempting to lead the “people”.

Randall Burns

4 years ago #6

I think Harvey Lloyd might appreciate this.

Randall Burns

4 years ago #5

Continued from #6 I'm in a profession where Mentoring is critical, I've had some great Mentors throughout my career and in turn I try to teach as much and as many as I can, which helps them perform better which in turn makes my job easier not to mention the enriching benefits for everyone involved. it is a career that engagement and involvement is crucial. One aspect of our business is there are many lessons learned through negative reinforcement. I will take examples and clips from the show, "The Office", to teach how NOT to do things which is also effective. Admittedly the kitchen environment is different, things happen very quickly, and I can see how these issues might be more pronounced in a large corporate setting but ultimately it comes down to management's leadership capabilities to cultivate an appropriate work atmosphere for staff to thrive in.

Randall Burns

4 years ago #4

Great post Jim Taggart and I think you're spot on with your premise. To state the obvious; Leadership is the key and the best way is to "Lead by example". I agree with your point of people can only empower themselves but it is up to management/leaders to facilitate/cultivate/encourage people to do that by providing a positive and constructive environment to do so. Your point of "vocabulary" is valid, although "accountability" is applicable I prefer using "ownership" with my staff and as a leader this is the way I approach my job. While my experience is limited to a kitchen/restaurant perspective it is a high stress environment with focus on performance, establishing a common priority for everyone really helps in streamlining agendas, (our's is "The customer is the #1 priority", although I would think that would be it for any service industry). Having everyone working towards the same goal solidifies a "team spirit" and unifies "accountability", which in turn encourages more "ownership". This in turn translates to less micro-managing on my part which is better for EVERYONE. As a leader an advantage to cultivating this environment is that I learn a lot more from my staff as they are pro-active in their performance, trouble shooting and problem solving. to be cont...

Jim Taggart

4 years ago #3

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Charlene. Yes, remaining positive is more constructive than turning pessimistic. One day coffee perhaps.

Randall Burns

4 years ago #2

Great post Jim Taggart A subject that is very close to my heart and extremely important in any business, especially in "Food service". I am formulating a more comprehensive response which I will post later.

Charlene Norman

4 years ago #1

Very nice thought piece Jim Taggart. Wish we lived closer because this topic is definitely worth a three coffee discussion in my books! My second book (underway) addresses some of the issues you raise. The short answer is 'bring back the soul and the humanity aspects and get rid of all the rigid policies, policing and archaic white-man practices. We in Canada already see and feel the results to your questions 2-4. We are deeply mired in #5 in so many places yet I am very encouraged by positive steps all over and #6 will take a huge effort on everyone's part (individual, government and business.) I remain an eternal optimist at heart, despite my negative leanings. LOL

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