The Age of Accountability in the Workplace

Last week, the head of my department declared: “We are in the age of accountability and metrics.”

It was certainly an ironic statement, coming from him. Tracking codes needed to be added to the Website addresses of sponsored articles, and that was not done. So we would not be able to say with as much detail how readers had responded to the ads. The funny (or not so funny) part was he, as the department leader, did not know whose responsibility it was to add those tracking codes. Of course, if he didn’t know, none of us did either.

Does that scenario sound familiar? An important task needs to get done, and a company leader believes it is important, and yet doesn’t assign the task to any specific person, or group. Yet, without communicating anything, he assumes it will magically get done. Then, he’s upset when it—surprise!—doesn’t get done.

Our department head wanted to remind us of the importance of URL tracking codes, and that’s why he reminded us about our “age of accountability and metrics.” There’s an irony there, though. He was referring to accountability in tracking the results of advertisements our sponsors invest in. But he also should have been referring to his own accountability. As leader, wasn’t he accountable for the task not getting done, and for not having a plan in the first place, for getting it done?

With accountability in the workplace on my mind, I did a Google search and found an article from last year by Warren Tanner, “Make Accountability a Core Part of Your Culture.” Tanner cites a statistic I can easily believe: “…according to a study (Source: AMA Enterprise, 2013), leaders recognize a significant lack of accountability on the part of employees. In fact, 21 percent of respondents stated that unaccountable employees make up 30 to 50 percent of their workforce.”

What do you think the culprit is behind lack of accountability? Do you think it’s managers who lack communication skills, and some who even might be adverse to communication? Or do you think it could be fear?

I’ve noticed that employees inside my company, and some I correspond with outside my company, often are afraid to give the go-ahead on a project, or task, such as the publication of a sponsored article, by e-mail. They’re not doing anything wrong, but in case something does go wrong, they don’t want an electronic trail that leads back to them. I find this cowardly and paranoid. But rather than it being the sign of a flawed character, these people may be responding to an unforgiving corporate culture.

It might be the same self-protective, anti-accountability impulse that turns every task or project into a group affair. If you rope a dozen people into an assignment, and that assignment goes wrong, it’s harder to pin the blame on you. It’s also harder, incidentally, to get the assignment done with so many “stakeholders.” But that, too, might be part of the self-protective, anti-accountability routine—make everything take as long as possible, or better yet, never get done, so there won’t be any end product to judge and experience repercussions for.

I often laugh to myself at the number of people my boss feels the need to bring into nearly every assignment he takes on. He talks about how he needs “more eyes on this.” Is it a sense of insecurity that drives him to search for eyes (I’m usually eager to escape them)? Or is it, as an extrovert, a passion for interaction with others? It just occurred to me that it might be all those things, but also a way to protect himself from accountability.

When I was hired nearly seven years ago, I saw tremendous inefficiency and lack of responsibility, with deadlines consistently missed. A key way I turned it around was simply stepping up and doing the work that needed to get done. And I mean doing the work—not “consulting with” or “getting more eyeballs on,” but doing it. The thought that I would be accountable for the end result never concerned me. It’s not that I thought my work was brilliant, but, rather, that I didn’t think of it as so precious that if something went wrong, I couldn’t just admit I made a mistake. I had enough faith in my work that I felt confident there was no single mistake so grave that it alone would result in me losing my job. I think that’s true of most jobs, so the fear of accountability usually is unfounded.

Then why are so many employees—perhaps including those at your own company—still afraid of their own shadows? What is it about many corporate cultures that makes employees afraid to take ownership, and then, heaven forbid, admit a mistake?


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