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Let’s make accountability a personal virtue, again

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read or hear about someone or some group who should be held accountable. The word has permeated the worlds of business, politics and sports. And I wonder: is accountability, as it now seems to be defined, as useful as we think in leading people? 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in accountability, but in my view, the word has gradually picked up an almost wholly negative connotation. Usually, when I hear or read about accountability or a lack of it, the topic is punishment. It’s about a score being settled. 

When people say they want a politician, a CEO or an athlete to be accountable, they aren’t saying they want to teach them to act responsibly. They are calling for punishment in the public square. They want to see someone fined, jailed, run out of office, fired, cut from the team. 

Accountability used to encompass responsibility, taking ownership of doing the right things the right way to achieve results. In dictionaries you find accountability and responsibility listed as synonyms; words that are substitutes or replacements for each other. But the more we associate accountability with punishment, the more the meanings of accountability and responsibility diverge. 

Accountability was once a personal virtue, “The buck stops here.” Now it’s no longer personal virtue, it’s the result of actions by your boss, your constituents or your coach. It’s not inherently yours, it is dropped on you like a hammer. It operates after the fact, when the damage has been done.  

As leaders, I think it is important to consider what we mean by accountability in our organizations. What we want, after all, is people doing the right things the right way without having to hold punishment over their heads. We want people who go the extra mile for the organization, even when there is no immediate reward or threat. Even when they are not “accountable” for it. 

We want the kind of people who see trash on the floor and pick it up, even when it isn’t their job; even when they aren’t accountable for it. We want people who see a process that can be improved and who come forward with ideas, even when doing so has nothing to do with their personal accountability.  

We want a culture where people take the initiative to do things like this. A culture where people make it their business to get to work on time, follow the organization’s rules and do their jobs without constant prodding by their supervisors. 

We want people who are responsible, who act responsibly, who take responsibility and who don’t need to be threatened with being held accountable. 

Responsible people take the initiative. Responsible people do things that aren’t required of them. They help other employees and other departments, even when their job description doesn’t require it. If they see something that needs to be done, they step up and do something about it. 

Responsible people know when they’ve failed to act responsibly. When they are held accountable, they take their medicine without complaining and making excuses. They are embarrassed about it. 

I’m not implying that people shouldn’t be held accountable. The person who is always late or can’t get along with coworkers or regularly goofs off should definitely be held accountable. What I’m suggesting is that people who need the threat of punishment to control their behavior will never be part of a great culture. If you are spending a lot of time holding people accountable, do yourself a favor and find more people who understand being responsible.



Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at [email protected]

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