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The Tricky Thing About Accountability

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Q: We love your work and really appreciate the support you give for “The Advantage” (and “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”) via The Hub.

We work with several large clients where (the lack of) accountability is a major problem from top to bottom. Top management laments that the people below lack accountability, yet display the same lack of it as those below. We have widely cautioned that there will be no accountability without consequence management—and those consequences need not always be negative. A failure may result in more or better training. Just teaching and coaching what accountability means and requires—for example, a clear agreement on the deliverables, timetable, resources, and so on can help. We encourage early renegotiation if the future completion date of a commitment is under threat and take lessons from John Kador’s “Effective Apology” where sincere contrition is required, but time after time we find an unwillingness and even blunt refusal to implement consequence management, especially when the failure is willful, negligent or out of ignorance, often fearing that employees will see disciplinary action, when necessary, as unfair or harsh. There is also a fear of the time it will take to implement the consequences—be it training or a long, bureaucratic disciplinary process. Some managers would rather put up with an underperforming employee than risk that the vacancy will not be filled quickly, leaving them short-handed or even filled at all in the current economic climate.

In your experience, can there be effective accountability where there is no consequence management? Any advice on how to build a culture of dealing with consequences that is embedded in the company DNA?

A: Thank you for your kind words.  Now, to your question.

I think the best leader I’ve seen who understands accountability is Alan Mulally, the man who led the remarkable turnaround at Ford.  He practiced and taught exactly what you are getting at.  If you read the history of what happened at Ford, you’ll see that he had to get executives to stand up in front of their peers and admit that they were struggling so that the productive consequences could be meted out.  Those consequences were almost always about how to fix a problem, rather than how to punish someone.  As you said, until leaders practice this, they can complain about it not existing deeper in the organization all they want, but nothing will change.

As Alan used to say at his weekly meetings, “hey, we need to know if your area is struggling so that we can spend the next week improving it.  We’re all going to be here next week anyway.”  In other words, it was about identifying issues rather than assigning blame. 

At the same time, if someone could not perform over time, or more importantly, if their behavior didn’t align with what the company expected of them, then Alan would step in and hold them accountable, but in the most positive, joyful way.  As a result, he fired very few people.  But he did help many others decide on their own that it was time to go elsewhere.

Accountability is a tricky thing.  The key is to remember that it is in everyone’s best interest—the company’s, the manager’s, and the employee’s.