Personal Accountability

by Derek Winter


Simon Terry recently wrote an excellent series of articles about Managing Accountability in what he calls the “Network Era”. It took me more time that I’d have liked to get around to reading them and more effort than normal to absorb the overall thread of the series. (A nice challenge to have in the increasingly ‘sound-bite’ world of online content).

I’d encourage you to read the series in one sitting, as it is excellent and contains far too much of value to summarise here without doing it a dis-service. I apologise in advance to Simon for honing in on just one aspect that he’s cover, however, I was particularly struck by his comment that

[too often] We assume people who hold rank in a hierarchy are accountable.

followed by the observation that in fact

Rank is rarely the measure of accountability

and that leads to the contention that

Accountability in networks is more likely to be found with social constructed authority.

My own view on accountability is that ultimately it needs to be held by an individual - accountability cannot be shared. Now I realise that to a degree this is a matter of semantics, but without clear, individual accountability, the ability to hold someone to account is immediately eroded. If it is shared, then it is not accountability. Call it mutual responsibility or collaboration, but not accountability. Along with this, accountability cannot be assumed. It must be clearly communicated and understood.

So what does personal accountability look like?

It will mean that I have the control levers; It defines the decisions that are ultimately mine. These two elements alone point to a level of authority being required to go with accountability.

In corporate terms, personal accountability is the set of things my boss will hold me to and for which I am employed and will be (should be?) included in my performance agreement.

This defines what is important or central in my work. I do not have to be asked to concentrate on what I’m accountable for … it is my job to do so, it will make crystal clear what my priorities are at any given time.

I can expect others to get involved when my accountabilities have an impact on an arena for which they are accountable, or when there is overlap with an arena for which they are involved.

Simon picks up this thread in his forth entry, specifically related to the topic of email, but universally relevant - 

The best accountability is personal. Personal accountability arises from engagement in conversations to create shared purpose, trust and enduring relationships.

and

There is no accountability without clarity of responsibility and consequence.

I couldn’t articulate the benefits any better than Simon does either ... “To improve accountability [...] leave behind the hierarchy and engage others in an authentic two way conversation [...]. There will be benefits in your leadership approach, the relationships created and the performance of the organisation.”

Benefits to Leadership? Indeed, without trust, those in hierarchical positions can (only) continue to operate and exercise power whereas as trust is fostered, they begin to exercise Leadership.

Simon finishes his series with some key practices for Leaders to follow of which I want to highlight just one:

Ask for explicit public commitments: Public commitments become part of relationships. Be explicit. Encourage people to share theirs and ask others in the community to hold them to account.

The language around accountabilities is that of “I assure you this will get done” vs. a more flakey sentiment “Trust me ...”. It is reasonable to expect within a team or a project for those involved to articulate both what they are committing to - what they are accountable for, as well as what they require of others - what they will hold others accountable for. The clarity that comes from such clear communication and public commitment will pay great dividends.