The Illusion of Accountability

One of the first questions I ask business owners and leaders who come to me for a consultation is, “How are you doing with accountability?” Typically, when leaders are honest with themselves the answer is either “We could do a lot better” or “We are terrible at it.” Certainly, it seems like most organizations, teams and leaders struggle with accountability, but there are some leaders who believe that they are leading an accountable organization. However, when I talk to the team members I typically hear a different story – that the organization is not accountable and that the leader is the biggest part of the problem.

I used to think that these leaders were either delusional or simply not being honest, but I’ve come to realize that many of them are illusional (yes, this is a word I made up) – their perceptions are based upon the illusion of accountability.

The core of the illusion of accountability is the belief that meeting external deadlines makes your organization accountable. However, there are two fundamental truths this illusion fails to see. First, accountability is a matter of integrity, which means that it’s personal (based upon personal commitments made from one person to another person). It’s not organizational, such as with organizational deadlines. Second, there is a difference between doing what you say you’re going to do (accountability) and getting something done for an external deadline.

For example, the fact that a company files its tax returns on time does not make it accountable. Similarly, the fact that an accounting firm files its clients’ tax returns on time does not mean that the accounting firm has a culture of accountability. If you’re in a business driven by external deadlines such as submitting bids, the fact that you submit bids on time does not mean that your team members are accountable to each other and for their commitments.

A better way to say this is to realize that hitting deadlines just means that you somehow manage to get things done – it doesn’t mean that your people can count on each other and trust that they’ll do what they say they’re going to do. Hitting deadlines does not build trust. Honoring your commitments (accountability) most definitely builds trust. In fact, it’s the best way to build trust, and the easiest way to lose trust is when you fail to honor your commitments.

As you seek to improve accountability in your organization and with your team members, instead of focusing on external deadlines to assess your accountability culture (or lack thereof), focus instead on commitments. Are they regularly made? Are they clear? Do your people consistently honor their commitments? Do your people take full ownership and responsibility for their choices when they fail to honor their commitments? These are the foundations of an accountable culture and the key to getting past the illusion of accountability.

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