A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
July 6th, 2013 by William

The Multiple Accountabilities Disorder

In last week’s post I talked about two major types of accountability–vertical and horizontal and proposing how more horizontal accountability is what I believe is needed in modern business. The fact is these two types of accountability can be broken down even further, i.e., there’s a finer granularity to accountability than you might not be aware of. Because of this many organizations may have a hard time achieving true accountability, or worse only achieve it symbolically.

In his 2005 article “Pathologies of Accountability: the Challenge of Multiple Accountabilities Disorder,” Jonathan GS Koppell, professor of Management at Yale University tells us that there is a five-part typology to accountability. They are: Transparency, Liability, Controllability, Responsibility, and Responsiveness. He defines them as:

  1. Transparency is the literal value of accountability; the idea that an accountable organization must explain or account for its actions.
  2. Liability attaches culpability to transparency. In this view, individuals and organizations should be held liable for their actions, punished for malfeasance, and rewarded for success.
  3. Controllability which is the dominant conception of accountability, i.e., if X can induce the behavior of Y, it is said that X controls Y–and that Y is accountable to X. Although few relationships between boss and employee are so straightforward, this conception is the starting point for many analyses of organizational accountability.
  4. Responsibility means that people and organizations are constrained by laws, rules, and norms.
  5. Responsiveness is an organization’s attention to direct expressions of the needs and desires of an organization’s constituents or customers. This element of accountability is emphasized in the “customer-oriented approach.”

Koppell I’m sure would agree that “controllability” is the concept most of us have of accountability and what’s most on the minds of upper management when they preach the need for more accountability. This is closely related to what I called “vertical” accountability–the management to employee relationship. But it’s only the starting point in a thorough analysis of organizational accountability. Koppel tells us “Distinguishing among the five dimensions of accountability is necessary to evaluate the accountability of any organization or individual. Determining whether an organization is accountable depends a great deal on which dimension of accountability one has in mind.”

Koppel’s “Multiple Accountabilities Disorder,” a term he coins in his article, stems from this lack of conceptual clarity between the five dimensions of accountability. Koppel explains, “The many meanings of accountability suggested by the varied use of the word are not consistent with each other: organizations cannot be accountable in all of the senses implied by this single word.”

Koppel’s contention is that “an organization suffering from Multiple Accountabilities Disorder oscillates between behaviors that are consistent with conflicting notions of accountability [and] that the lack of specificity regarding the meaning of accountability–or failure to articulate a choice–can undermine an organization’s performance. First, the organization may attempt to be accountable in the wrong sense (such as a judge taking orders).[1] Second, and perhaps worse, an organization may try to be accountable in every sense. Organizations trying to meet conflicting expectations are likely to be dysfunctional, pleasing no one while trying to please everyone.”

What happens in practice is that an organization may only be able to focus on one dimension of accountability at a time. Here’s an example; an organization will sometimes emphasize accountability to principals, or values, while at other times try to focus on customer satisfaction.  The main point being that an organization can’t be all accountable to all of Koppel’s five dimensions of accountability all the time.

In their 2008 article “The Challenge of Multiple Accountability,” Thomas Schillemans and Mark Bovens explain that because of this disorder achieving organizational accountability can even more difficult than Koppel asserts. Schillemans and Bovens tell us; “A general assumption is often that more accountability is better; as accountability, as such, is a good thing. However, too much accountability may be an impediment that hinders [organizations] from making decisions. Too much accountability then prevents organizations from reaching their goals. [Multiple accountability disorder] leads to a situation where accountors are faced with a multiplicity of demands from accountees. If the weight of these conflicting demands is too strong, we end up with [impaired decision making] and if too weak we end up with a loss of control.” In other words, either too much, or too little, accountability leads to a dysfunctional organization. So it would appear that accountability, like many other management practices, is a matter of degree and each organization must find its own equilibrium.

Ironically it seems that something one would think would be a good thing–the search for accountability–only provides yet another reason organizations can become dysfunctional.

Interestingly Schillemans and Bovens contend that there’s a third option possible: “the adding of accountability has no positive or negative effects [on the organization] at all. In that case it is likely the arrangements have a purely symbolic role–they are rituals. They call this “symbolic accountability.” This happens more than we think evidenced by the fact that the term “accountability” has crept into the latest buzz-word jargon heard ad-nauseam in the modern workplace. It’s also what’s in place in an organization where accountability really only means finding someone to blame.

Schillemans’ and Bovens’ bottom line, “Sometimes it may be important to pay lip-service to some ideal [like accountability] without granting it real influence. The idea may be important, but in practice it has no added value.”


[1] Koppel uses judges as an example; “judges are expected to act independently as impartial, neutral arbiters. The idea of judges following orders is anathema. But bureaucrats are often described as unaccountable precisely because they are beyond the control of legislators and elected executives. Are we to infer that judges are intended to be unaccountable? The answer, of course, is no. Judges ought to be accountable in yet another sense. Accountability, when applied to judges, involves fidelity to laws, principles, and norms of objectivity.”

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