How to Make People More Accountable

Every few days, I hear someone say “We need more accountability.” Usually the person is  referring to middle management. It seems that the big problem in organizations is that middle managers are notoriously unaccountable. But, when you hear a call for more accountability, (unless it is directed at you, in which case you should probably listen up) you should be wary.

Calling for others to be more accountable generally obscures the real causes of the “lack of accountability” phenomenon. To assume that others are not accountable is to imply that they are lazy or somehow incompetent. They are falling down on their commitments. The call is then often followed by a demand for greater compliance and governance—an attempt to force them to meet their commitments.

In reality, though, most people working in organizations are being as accountable as they can to what counts in their worlds. We work in such complex social and organizational arrangements that there are many conflicting priorities, shifting resource allocations, and unpredictable obstacles that can arise. For the most part, the “lack of accountability” problem in organizations is not about lack of commitment but having too many commitments and unclear, conflicting projects.

Those who call for greater accountability from others are falling into what is sometimes called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is that people tend to to attribute the behavior of others to the other person’s character and to attribute their own behavior more situational or environmental factors. This kind of thinking distracts us from considering the real obstacles to getting things done: the conflicting processes, competing priorities from managements, shifting goals of a management, resources stretched to thin, and the confluence of factors that limit productivity in the workplace. 

So, if you want more accountability, you have to make it possible for people to be more accountable.

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