Accountability – the issue of our time

My business partner Joe has written a number of posts over the past six months on this topic and today’s hearings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse prompts me to add to the conversation.

Accountability: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.

Accountable: subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable. Capable of being explained; explicable; explainable.

[By the way, after 30 years of working with leadership teams around the world if I had a dollar for every explanation I’ve heard from someone being held to account I’d be very rich!]

Everyone understands what accountability means but understanding it doesn’t cause it. If we really want to shift our culture, any culture, to one that is based in people being accountable we need to dig deeper than just knowing the definition of the word.

The glaring absence of accountability in the world today has its roots in some simple but powerful truths:

1. It’s uncomfortable to look bad and most of us will do anything to avoid others seeing us in a bad light, including lying, avoiding, being ambiguous, blaming others etc. Take any issue or breakdown where someone has failed to do what they are accountable for doing or said they would do and there is a high chance that the defenses are going to be up.

2. People have a weak relationship with their word. ‘Talk is cheap’, ‘Actions speak louder than words’ etc. indicate that our word is not regarded as a powerful thing, merely a medium for communication and that it’s action that’s important. That is true but effective action starts with effective talk and then honouring that talk. People have a much stronger relationship with their thoughts and feelings. What that means is someone says they are accountable for something or that accountability is implicit in their role but at a given point in time they don’t ‘feel’ like doing it or have ‘thoughts’ about the relevance or requirement for them to do it, then those feelings or thoughts will win over their word. Being accountable starts with the recognition that you are your word – that what you say is what you are willing to be held to account for without ifs, buts or maybes.

3. Holding someone to account effectively is ENTIRELY a function of someone’s willingness to be held to account. When someone is willing to be held to account they make it safe for others to do so. Why leadership teams put up with ordinariness, compromise delivering fully on their strategies and plans, is because they get resigned about what they can expect from their teammates. If every time you go to hold a peer to account for what they said you get excuses, justifications, pouting or upset then what’s left? Taking care of your own business, relying on yourself and pretending everything is going fine. The default culture that gets created goes something like ‘you don’t call me on my crap and I won’t call you on yours’ – and mediocrity prevails.

If you want to create a culture of accountability in your organisation you’ve got to go deep. Starting with your recruitment processes – how do you screen for people’s competency to deal with the truth, to listen when it’s uncomfortable to do so, to honour what they say?

Working with a team that’s already in place – you need to support their development both individually and collectively as accountable human beings and recognise that it takes time. That kind of shift doesn’t come about in the space of 2 hours, 2 days or even 2 weeks.

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