In my work, I frequently come across organizations who are very focused on holding people accountable. There’s a predictable pattern which goes with accountability, though. The begins with the belief that if we hold people accountable, it will allow for a better outcome to happen.

In a way, I can see this perspective and understand why an organization would do this. When things start going wrong, though, and they will go wrong at some point, the complexity of accountability is increased to fix the problem. In other words, the response to something going wrong is to add more layers accountability.

When this happens, the problems continue, and the reaction is to add more accountabilities. Then when this still doesn’t fix the problem, can you guess what happens? You got it; the company adds more accountability on top of what’s already there.

Accountability is working perfectly!

The thing is we keep trying to solve accountability problems by adding more accountability. When in fact, the accountabilities are working just fine. I know you’re probably thinking I’ve lost my mind, but please keep reading as I’m going to explain myself.

From what I’ve been able to find this notion of accountability goes back to the 14th or 15th century. It was at that time the idea of having people account for money seemingly first emerged.

Imagine you were the tax collector in a kingdom back in the 14th century. You work for the king, and the king is going to want to know someone is looking after his money. You’re going to be asked to account for not just some of the King’s money; you need to explain where all of it is. 

When things are going well, it’s easy and enjoyable to tell the King how much money he has. However, when money is missing, it could have dire consequences for your life. So when money is missing, your human response would be to lay blame or justify the absence of some funds in an attempt to account for it.

Fast forward to 2017

The concept of accountability works the same as it did all those hundreds of years ago. The CEO holds the VP’s accountable, the VP’s hold directors accountable, the Directors hold managers accountable and so on down the hierarchy.

When things are going well, accountability is not a problem. People hold up their results with pride and point to how they met their objectives. It’s easy to explain the outcomes, and often enjoyable to do so as well as it may even feed your ego.

We seem to have a compounding problem happening. The fix to these challenges can seem simple. Given person ‘A’ is not living up to their accountabilities, add another layer of accountability through person ‘B’ as surely that would assure a better outcome. 

Eventually, you will discover the problems are not resolved through the first two accountabilities. So, because the organization believes there is a need for accountability they will add more layers of accountability.

When we hold people accountable, often the impact comes in the form of governance activities. Project teams spend hours and hours creating documentation, just to prove they are accountable. Unfortunately, though, not one bit of this accountability activities deliver any value or creates an environment for better outcomes.

The mindset of accountability

Accountability is a mindset that works vertically through an organization. When we use accountability and focus on what’s going wrong it means you create silos. In these silos, you seem fine as long as you can lay blame or justify why this problem is not yours. However, the reality is the problem still exists for the organization, you’ve just managed to keep you neck out of the noose.

For years, I’ve had a viseral reaction to the phrase “single wringable neck.” These three words are often associated with the person we are going to hold accountable. It is a highly counter-productive mindset to use to talk about the person who is accountable. The reason is when things have gone wrong, and the person cannot escape through laying blame or justifying, they turn to a mindset of shame or obligation. 

In shame and obligation, the focus has turned internal to yourself. I was taught a long time ago both of these are being responsible, when in fact this is not true. In shame, I stand up and take one for the team by saying “I screwed up”. In obligation, I do what I’m told even though I know it’s not going to fix the problems, but at least I can say I was accountable. 

These mindsets are all normal human reactions for being held to account for a problem. The problem is, all of these don’t create better outcomes or resolve the problems. So when we add more accountability in an attempt to solve problems we create layers of these problems for ourselves. It’s like watching interest compound on a debt you cannot repay.

Shared Responsibility

It’s been my experience teams get much better outcomes when the whole team is held accountable for an outcome. Then within the team create a culture of shared responsibility.  

Responsibility works horizontally across your organization and rather than justifying or laying blame when problems show up, teams grow together. The teams grow by building their awareness of how they’re responding to problems, and chooosing more actions that create better outcomes. If a team can see they’re in one of these mindsetse, it’s my experience they almost always can learn to respond in a more responsible way.

For me, I teach the teams I work with The Responsibility ProcessTM, then use it to coach & mentor them. Through learning this process, the teams start to see the times they are taking a stance which isn’t going to improve their outcomes. 

I know what some of you might be thinking: “The Responsibility Process sounds nice Mike, but this would never work in my organization.”  The truth is The Responsibility Process already does work in your organization.

The question is actually: How is it working for you?

Want to learn The Responsibility Process, and why Accountability is creating the problems you’re trying to fix?Join Christopher Avery, author and researcher behind The Responsibility Process in Toronto on March 23/17

For more information and to register visit:

Special Offer! 

As a reader of my blog, taken 10% off the regular ticket price by using discount code: mikeeedwards 

Building Great Teams

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