A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 21st, 2013 by William

The Accountability Dilemma

What is your first reaction when you hear someone at work talking about accountability? It’s a term that’s heard quite often in the halls of business.[1] If you’re like me, you’re thinking “are we talking about finding someone to blame for something or are we really talking about “everyone” (especially management) stepping up and taking more responsibility for both the successes and the failures or the organization?” The truth is that because the first option is what’s most prevalent, for most people their gut reaction is probably “here comes another witch-hunt.” Unfortunately in the modern workplace accountability, all too often, ends up as just that–a search for someone to blame and punish when things go wrong. That’s because most often the need for accountability isn’t voiced until the stuff has already hit the fan. But this shouldn’t be what accountability is all about.

In most business contexts the term accountability is bandied about in regard to holding someone responsible for their job performance. We seldom think of accountability in terms of management’s responsibility for the overall success of the organization and for the organizational culture they have created.[2]

In his 2005 article “The Accountability Dilemma,” Robert Behn, a Harvard University Professor, talks about three types of accountability in business. What’s interesting is that Behn proposes that there are other types of accountability other than just performance. In doing so he details one of the first problems that arise when we try to hold people accountable for their actions.

Behn’s three elements of accountability are: finance, fairness and performance. The “finance” element describes the responsibility of the senior management to meet the financial goals and expectations placed on the overall organization. “Fairness” provides a convenient grouping of all the elements of a “healthy organizational culture.” It includes elements like trust, respect and empathy–without which you will not have a healthy culture. Lastly is “performance” which we all think about most often when we talk about holding people accountable.

Behn tells is that “If an agency [business] follows every rule for finance and fairness its performance may suffer. This is the “accountability dilemma:” the tradeoff of accountability for finances and fairness v. accountability for performance.” This means that accountability must flow “up” the organizational chart, not just down.

We very seldom think of accountability as “going up the organization chart.” But I would make the case that for an organization to have true accountability it is part of the employee’s responsibility to the organization to hold the leaders accountable and for the leaders to accept that responsibility. Behn hammers home this point with his identification of “fairness” as another element of accountability–management must also be held accountable for the values, i.e., the culture of the organization.

In his 2009 article, “Shared Accountability,” Bret L. Simmons sums it up best. “In our current paradigm of leadership, we don’t have any problem with the idea that leaders hold followers accountable. Followers expect to be held accountable. Highly effective leaders share their expectations with followers, help enable them to meet or exceed those expectations, and then administer the rewards or consequences that were earned.

“On the other hand, it is a huge paradigm shift to think that it is part of the follower’s legitimate responsibility to hold the leader accountable. Yet for the right relationship to exist between leaders and followers that is exactly what has to happen.”

This is why many people never think they should hold their management accountable–it’s mostly unheard of because we all know what typically happens to whistle-blowers.

Behn goes on to tell as “The best leaders invite their followers to hold them accountable. And the best followers have the courage to hold their leaders accountable even if they are not invited to do so.”

Even if an organization truly practices shared accountability, there’s still another type of accountability that’s important to having a happy and successful organization. The concept of shared accountability can also be called “Vertical Accountability.” As explained above this is where both employee and management are equally accountable for their actions and performance. This means that accountability flows both “down” the organization chart and “up” the organization chart.

But if an organization’s culture is be truly healthy there’s also a need for “Horizontal Accountability.” Horizontal accountability flows “across’ the organizational chart between departments or functional groups. Horizontal accountability is respect, trust, teamwork and collaboration between all departments in an organization such that they are jointly responsible for achieving results or outcomes.

This is the type of accountability that many might not think about. This is the type of accountability that has the biggest impact on the culture of an organization and it’s propensity for developing dysfunctional behaviors. A good example of horizontal accountability in action might be where an organization’s design engineering group is held accountable for the quality of their product designs such that manufacturing can successfully build and deliver that product to awaiting customers.

Horizontal accountability eliminates the need for the members of an organization to develop fiefdoms, play mind-games with their colleagues, have to keep Pearl Harbor files, and generally blamestorm others when things inevitably go wrong. These are all elements of a dysfunctional organization.

But alas, in most organizations the last person to touch something usually gets blamed if it fails while the first to touch it gets praised if it’s a success. For most organizations this, sadly, is what accountability is all about.


[1] Note that if the “need for more accountability” is a term constantly on the lips of senior management than this is an organization with serious dysfunctionality problems. If this is your organization you may want to hedge your bet by looking for greener pastures.

[2] In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw I make the assertion that organizational culture is the direct result of the actions, values and ethics of the organization’s leaders, thus they should be held accountable when that culture is dysfunctional.


2 Responses to “The Accountability Dilemma”
  1. Anonymous says

    This is genuinely intriguing, You’re a really competent blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeing a lot more of your fantastic submittals. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!…

    No one is accountable in any organization. Everyone points in all 4 directions, left, right, up or down the chain but forget the most important one, themselves. If you do your part, stay out of the politics and stay away from the gossipy clicks and just do your job you should not have to worry, correct? Wrong, most people spend 15-20% of the day what I call politicking. They have to if they want to keep a job. I reccomend that you run, don’t walk, from managers who want yes men instead of the truth because you will be the scapegoat for those who can’t perform. Even mediocre workers are now being washed out by yes-puppets. Just my thought. We can put any language you want around it but you put yourself in these situations and only you (THE INDIVIDUAL) can change the situation. Articulate your issue or leave and go somewhere where you are appreciated.

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