Articles

The Accountability Thief

September 22, 2020 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

When managers in organisations are asked why they do not hold their people accountable, they typically provide a list of reasons which fall neatly into the categories of Willing; Able; and Allowed. But the reason which is not given, which is actually the primary reason why managers do not hold their people accountable, is that managers have not clarified and agreed what each person is accountable for in the first place.

The typical Willing, Able and Allowed reasons are shown below.

 

NOT WILLING
  • Lack of the “testicular fortitude” to do so – conflict-averse; want to be liked too much; fear the reaction of those held accountable.
  • Don’t care enough – prepared to tolerate less than the best; misbehaviour and poor attitude, as long as the results are good.
NOT ABLE
  • Lack the knowledge and skills to do so – don’t know how to diagnose performance issues; have not been taught how to have the “tough conversation”.
NOT ALLOWED
  • The environment is not conducive to doing so – not enough time; too busy pursuing the result; lack the authority to discipline or reward; the procedures are too complex; there is a lack of support up the line.

Only very occasionally do managers say that they don’t hold their people accountable because they don’t know what to hold them accountable for. The reason they don’t know what to hold their people accountable for, they say, is because they have not sat down and clarified and agreed this with them. And the reason they haven’t done so is that they have assumed that their people already know what they are accountable for.

I first came across this problem of assuming that people know what they are accountable for many years ago when I was working with a client on a gold mine in Tanzania. I was in discussion with two people, a manager and his direct report (who, in the manager’s view, was grossly underperforming).

At a point in the conversation I posed this question to the direct report: “What (pointing to the manager) do you think he is paying you for?”

When the direct report had given his response, his manager exploded: “What!? That is the last thing I am paying you for. What I am paying you for is …”

Afterwards I asked the manager why he had not clarified his expectations with his direct report. Why had he not literally taken what was in his head, voiced it, and confirmed that this was what the other person also had in his head? The reason, in short, was because he had assumed that what was in his head and what was in his direct report’s head were identical.

The assumption that people know what is expected of them, or that expectations between parties is both clear and aligned, is a common problem and one that I am only too guilty of. Two examples, spring to mind.

The first pertains to a business partnership that I was in. Two new partners came on board. During this process there was no sitting down and engaging in conversation about expectations. I did not say, “This is what I’m expecting you to bring to the party”. Nor did I ask, “Is this what you can/want to bring or do you have another view?” A year later, one of the new partners exited the business. My view was that he had not lived up to hopes and expectations. His view? I really don’t know. I just know that the relationship did not survive the experience.

More recently, it occurred to me that my expectations of Legitimate Leadership associates and what they believed was expected from them, were not necessarily one and the same. My expectations went way beyond excellent delivery on work contracted and agreed with clients. I documented my expectations and then held frank discussions with each associate around the question: “What are you willing and able to contribute in the next 90 days?” The results were truly amazing. To my embarrassment, one associate said it was the most useful discussion that she had ever had with me! Other associates reported feeling far more responsible than previously, following this exercise.

Since then I have been overawed by the increase in contribution made!

So it seems that although a lack of courage and care, inadequate skills and a non-conducive environment all have a role to play in a lack of holding people accountable, the number one Accountability Thief is actually a lack of clarity.

Clarity refers to people knowing what is expected of them, what their contribution in the context of the results to be achieved actually is, and how their contribution impacts on organisational performance. Clarifying and agreeing contribution, now and going forward, is one of the most critical enablers of contribution. Without clarity, value-added contribution is not possible.

In the words of Marcus Buckingham: “There is no such thing as a confused productive employee.”

Wendy Lambourne
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