Accountability is the first tool of management. And, a billion-dollar consulting industry exists to teach organizations how to drive accountability into the organization.
But I’ve noticed this: the more successful consultants and trainers are at driving accountability into your organization, the more personal responsibility goes down.
Let’s look at why that is the case:
Accountability is the first tool of management because it’s the reason for hierarchy. We have work to do that demands more than one person, so we divide the work up into parts. We hire other people and we delegate, and then we have a performance management process and that whole process is generally referred to as the accountability process.
It’s interesting that there’s a dearth of research in management science on the practice of accountability.
(Yes, I hold a doctorate in applied organizational science.)
Management scholars avoid studying accountability like the plague. So what’s been written about accountability is mostly been written by consultants or former executives who had an accountability performance management system that worked for them, and they think it’ll work in your context too.
By the way, accountability has very little to do specifically with management. If I come home from a week of travel and my wife asks me to pick up eggs and milk on the way home from the airport (and I say ‘yes’), then I forget the eggs and milk, can my wife hold me to account?
Does she have the right to hold me to account? Of course, she does! I made a commitment, and I didn’t follow through. But she’s not my boss (marriage jokes aside); Amy’s my partner.
So accountability is about how we handle promises and commitments in any relationship where one party depends on another.
Accountability is external. Accountability is always a relationship between you and somebody else. Whether or not you are held to account isn’t up to you — it’s up to that other person.
We’ve all been held to account for something that wasn’t fair. And then there was something you did at work you are really proud of it — and your boss didn’t notice, he didn’t hold you to account in a positive way.
Whereas accountability is outside of us — between us and somebody else — responsibility is internal, it’s a feeling of ownership, and is subjective.
That means it’s different for everybody. How much or how little of your life and work you are willing to own is up to you.
It’s also transient, which means it comes and goes. Our feeling of ownership for our life and situation comes and goes. Think about the example above. One day I might respond with, “Honey, I’m sorry I forgot. I’ll go get the eggs and milk right now.” On another day I might respond with something less responsible.
How we respond — i.e., our personal responsibility — is far more important than our accountability (what others can hold us to account for) for success and happiness as well as for a culture of engagement and performance.
Like I mentioned before, the more successful consultants and trainers are at driving accountability into an organization, the more responsibility goes down.
In my next post, I will tell you more about how you can get to Responsibility by teaching and applying The Responsibility Process™.
Get Started With This 5-Minute Practice Tip
The next time you forget the eggs and milk, take a second before you respond — and then respond from a place of Responsibility.
Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.
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