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We all have obligations at work. These obligations come at us from many directions… our peers, our clients, our subordinates, and yes even our bosses! The progression of steps an individual goes through when receiving and performing assignments varies.

Whether we are the head of the organization, an executive, a manager, or a consultant providing support, we have obligations… those deliverables for which we can be called to account.

This is all thought to have something to do with accountability.

For managers, ensuring subordinates are accountable while executing strategy is no easy feat. And by managers, I refer to anyone who is accountable for the work of others. Yes, an owner is a manager. An executive is a manager. In addition to their executive duties, owners, CEOs and executives must also manage their team members.

For consultants, this gets more complicated. Consultants are accountable to their client for delivering the project deliverables for which they have been contracted. In an implementation, they may be accountable for providing methods, materials, training and other services. But they cannot be accountable for directing employees within the organization, as this would undermine the authority of the managers in the organization to direct work. Therefore, it is incumbent on consultants to understand organizational accountability, so they know how to best advise their client if the project appears to be going off the rails.

Seventy percent of change projects in organizations fail to deliver results. This is largely because of flaws in the accountability and authority framework in the organization.

So how do we avoid these pitfalls? Let’s discuss the key concepts of accountability – what it is, how it impacts managers and how to approach this critical piece of the puzzle for effective management.

What is accountability, and how does it impact managerial success?

We often hear accountability used to describe businesses that are “not being held accountable” or individuals “needing to take more accountability” for their actions. Are you accountable? Am I? How is accountability used in the organization and what impact does it have on the day-to-day job managers’ need to do?

The starting point for understanding accountability in the organization is work. Work is at the core of achieving strategy and vision. While most organizations today do a decent job of outlining a 3, 5 or 10-year strategic plan, few follow through. Fast-forward a few years from the approval of the strategy and many well-developed strategies are no longer clear. Why? One reason is misaligned accountability, and the fact that managers have an increasingly difficult time getting everyone on the same page when it comes to strategy execution.

Several years ago, we set out to discover how managers could be more successful and this is what we found:

In a major research program partnered with the University of Ottawa, we identified a direct relationship between accountability and effectiveness. In organizations with high accountability, managers were more effective in their work, and thus, more successful. The correlation between accountability and effectiveness was both high (.67), and highly statistically significant, illustrating a critical relationship between these two concepts.

If more accountability equals more effectiveness, then why the disconnect?

As a starting point, there is no commonly understood definition of accountability. So, we created a working definition that consists of three main components:

  • An obligation.There must be an obligation or duty to do something where someone is held to account.
  • An action.An individual is held to account for not just results, but also, actions. More than simply getting something done, accountability involves how it gets done.
  • A “specified other”.Beyond holding yourself liable, accountability requires a ‘specified other’ that holds you to account for doing something. In an organization, this is traditionally a manager.

Accountability is: An obligation for which one can be held to account for one’s results and one’s actions by a specified other. So what is it about this concept that makes it so difficult to understand?

Accountability versus responsibility. 

Accountability isn’t the easiest term to grasp, and there’s often a tendency to confuse it with responsibility. Here’s how the two are different. With accountability, someone is held to account and the action must result. By contrast, responsibility is more values driven, coming from within. In other words, one who is accountable must complete something. But one who feels responsible truly believes that what they need to do is important. To be clear, responsibility is essential in organizations. Workers should feel responsible for doing good work and completing tasks. Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between responsibility and accountability.

Felt accountability versus clarity of accountability. 

In addition to confusing accountability with responsibility, through our research we discovered that there are two dimensions of accountability. Felt accountability is how strongly you feel accountable for doing good work. Clarity of accountability is how clear you are about those things for which you are accountable. In our research database, managers self reported 8.7 out of 10 for felt accountability – a clear indication that they felt fairly accountable for their work. Interestingly, they had much less clarity of accountability, identifying 7.1 out of 10.

Clarity of accountability is critical at every level in the organization.

In organizations, strategic direction is articulated by the owner, or in larger organizations a paid CEO. But, if that person isn’t clear with tehir immediate subordinates in terms of what they are accountable for doing, then organizational drift occurs. From operations to sales to finance, each subordinate looks at work through her or his own unique filter, impacting how they execute and set priorities.

From the perspective of operations, we need more and better facilities and equipment so we can produce more at a higher quality. From the sales perspective we need more sales people and products with more and better features so we can sell more. Finance wants better financial systems and software support in order to track and report expenses and manage financing. These different views of how to achieve a growth strategy are seldom compatible with each other.

Whatever the size of the organization, from a handful of people to a hundred people to 5,000 people, who is the one person that can set the overall context for finding the right balance? Exactly – it is that single organization at the head of the organization, regardless of title. And arriving at that balance, and finding the right implementation path for successful execution of the strategy requires managerial work.

Clarity of accountability, starting at the very top and throughout the entire organization ensures everyone is pulling the company in the same direction, reinforcing each other’s work with complete transparency about what they are accountable for. When this happens, smart decision-making occurs and employees take initiatives with certainty that they are helping the organization do the work that is most important, and that is consistent with the organization’s direction.

The Missing Piece

So what is the missing piece? Very often the heads of organizations have the following attitude: “I have senior people reporting to me. They are great at what they do, and they don’t need me telling them what to focus on. They were part of the strategy development, so now that it is approved, they can just get on with the work.”

This is a noble sentiment, and to some extent it is true. A CEO or owner won’t manage a subordinate as closely as a front line manager might manager a production worker. But that doesn’t mean there is no management. The heads of the organization have managerial accountability and authority that must be exercised. If they do not do this work, it will not be done. And the result will be organizational drift. There is no escaping it.

What is the lesson for managers?

In many cases, managerial effectiveness pivots on whether or not clear accountabilities are set for employees and subordinates. The workforce will undoubtedly feel accountable for doing good work. The question is whether or not they will feel accountable for doing the right work—that which will help achieve the strategy.

This is the definition of an effective manager, and why accountability is so important.

Managers must define clear expectations so that their team members know exactly what it is they will be held accountable for as they go about their work.

What is the lesson for consultants?

Professional management consultants are not a part of the organization. They cannot be held accountable for directing work within the organization. Too often executives and managers feel they are “let off the hook” for implementation work because an outside consultant has been hired.

Rather, consultants must bring their expertise, knowledge, methods and other resources to the organization, but to support executives and managers in doing this work. Consultants need to be clear with their clients about this. If they are not, there is a great risk that the project will be one of the 70% of projects that do not deliver results.

Consultants! Check out this special opportunity to learn more about accountability and authority for your practice:

Check out the recorded Seminar: Organizational Accountability and Authority. Dwight leads this seminar, hosted by CMC-Canada. It includes material presented by Dwight, together with facilitated discussions with the participants. Learn morhere.