Most people are familiar with the concept of being accountable for something. We’re accountable to our families, our relationships, and our work. In fact, as children, we learn the importance of being held accountable for our actions and the consequences that exist if we shirk that accountability. But accountability is not without challenges and is often ambiguous, confusing, and a source of conflict in the workplace.

Why is accountability so complex and what is it within the modern organization that causes so many problems?

No Clear Definition Exists

Open up a dictionary and you’re sure to find at least a few different definitions for “accountability”. In most cases, at least one part of the entry includes “being held to account by another”. In this most basic sense, it is assumed that accountability cannot exist without a second party or some other entity to whom one can be called to account. Sounds easy enough, yet research and organizational behaviour literature has yet to come up with one consistent and widely accepted definition for accountability.

Self-Driven Accountability is Ambiguous

The simple fact is that accountability cannot exist in a vacuum; that it depends on another for being held to account. And yet, organizations are filled with people who believe they are working independently by exercising self driven accountability. For organizational systems and work processes to function as designed, there must be a framework of both accountability and authority so people know what they’re accountable for and to whom they are accountable. In the absence of that, people are left trying to create their own accountabilities. The risk in this situation is that these actions are usually not consistent with where the CEO and decision makers want to take the organizationAt best, self-driven accountability is confusing as people cannot collaborate effectively and define their own accountabilities simultaneously. At worst, it’s damaging to organizational workflow.

Self-Driven Accountability Creates Overlap and Discontinuity

Self-driven accountability creates overlap, discontinuity, and an uncoordinated effort. At its worst, self-driven accountability can result in chaos. Different people at different levels will set well meaning but varying objectives and carry out what they believe to be central to the task with insufficient reference to the larger, organizational objectives. They will use their resources to move in the direction each believes to be most important and as a result, overlap will be common. Self-driven accountabilities tend to create discontinuity as the integration mechanism is missing. The concept of self-driven accountability is flawed and not a successful model for organizational effectiveness.

Why is the concept of accountability so misunderstood? Without a common and well-understood working definition, the modern organization depends on best intentions for meeting objectives and getting things done. Rather than working within a common framework that pulls the organization in the desired direction, self-directed accountabilities become a common approach. But this is a flawed model. Rather, a well-defined and properly articulated accountability and authority framework within the organization will minimize overlap and discontinuity and increase engagement and productivity.