The Sacred Tenet of Accountability

Ron Ashkenas points out in an HBR article 'One of the most sacred tenets of management is the need for clear accountability. As such, organizations spend enormous amounts of time and energy defining jobs, roles, and goals -— and then figure out who to reward or punish when things go well or poorly'.

I'm sensitized the topic partly because of the number of times I've heard the words 'accountable' and 'accountability' this past week. They cropped up, for various reasons, in just about every meeting I was in. Reasons included: some to do with two or more people trying to do the same thing, some to do with no-one doing whatever was supposed to be done, some to do with lack of control over third party activity, and so on.

I am not alone in hearing 'accountable' and accountability' at every turn. Jerry Muller in The Costs of Accountability writes 'that "accountability" has become a ubiquitous meme-—a pattern that repeats itself endlessly, albeit with thousands of localized variations'. His is a critique of our cultural obsession both with the concept and with enacting the concept.

Seeing how 'accountability' works and doesn't work in practice I too wonder about this 'sacred tenet' because I am struck by four things:
1. Individuals often resist being assigned accountability or being accountable
2. Individuals who are accountable often feel driven to compromise their values, ethics or better judgement
3. Single point accountability sits well enough in a command/control organisation but is not always right in a matrix or networked organisation where good relationships are key to effective performance.
4. Accountability is culturally defined

Ashkenas discusses three points to explain why 'accountability is muddled': a) point 1 on my list (people trying to avoid it), b) the complexity of most organisational structures c) processes are constantly evolving. So taken collectively that's six points that make the 'sacred tenet' problematic. I'll discuss my four here
Resistance
I suggest that the resistance to taking accountability is due in part to individuals being required to meet externally applied performance measures. For example 'A maximum wait of four hours in A&E remains a key NHS commitment and is a standard contractual requirement for all NHS hospitals'. The issue with this is that often individuals have very little or no control over what it is they are being measured against. Look at the A & E waiting times again. One report tells us that 'Pressure on emergency departments is symptomatic of wider pressures across the NHS, which is struggling to cope with rising demand in the face of increasing numbers of elderly people with multiple health conditions, alongside constrained resources.' (Ashekenas's point on resistance relates to fear of failure)
Compromise
My second point on compromise relates again to the accountability metrics. They drive performance. Sadly they are often ill-conceived and thus frequently lead to short term or myopic decisions being made that sacrifice the longer term benefit. They also pressure individuals to 'improve the numbers' which may compromise their values, better judgement, and high quality work in the process. Jerry Muller's article has some illustrative examples of this.
Single point accountability
My third point that single point accountability can work well in a command/control organisation but is more problematic in a matrix or networked one is similar to Ashkenas's point on organisational complexity. A recent McKinsey article Revisiting the Matrix Organisation offers more on this and suggests that 'consultative (as opposed to authoritarian) leadership practices can contribute meaningfully to accountability [in a matrix organisation]'.
Cultural definition
The fourth point that accountability is culturally defined is I think worth more consideration, particularly in organisations that are trying to change their culture. In a report 'Culture and accountability in organizations: Variations in forms of social control across cultures' researchers say '[Although] all cultures have accountability systems to create predictability, order, and control, the nature of accountability systems can vary considerably across cultures.'
Summary
So my various investigations on accountability are leading me towards the conclusion that the sacred tenet of accountability is one that needs de-sanctifying to allow close examination and a re-think. Is this possible?

What's your view on accountability? Let me know.

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