January 20, 2014

A Word I Hate Almost As Much As Rigor

This post was last updated on March 26th, 2017 at 04:57 pm

First off, my distain for the word is no secret. The word suggest authority and hierarchy. I suppose in some institutions that still works but as someone who has spent 25+ years in education and now works for a company that has a relatively flat organization in terms of leadership, this article is problematic is many ways.

Whenever I come across something about accountability my ears perk up. It’s kind of the same way I feel about rigor. Yet I know some people like the word. Usually those in authority.

I pretty much disagreed with this article called “6 Practical Ways to Create a Culture of Accountability” in its entirety. I looked at the author and he’s a college student. I’m trying for the life of me to figure out what he would know about creating a culture of anything, let alone accountability. My fear is that coming from a reputable source, this is the kind of list people love to share. I decided to tackle it and address each point. Keep in mind this is a generic article about culture. I react to this from an educational institution perspective as well as my current role in a business where responsibility is embraced.

Set expectations

It is important to set firm, clear, and concise expectations for any group. Accountability will not grow where team members are unsure of the group’s purpose and vision. Teams need to know what is expected of them before they in turn can be expected to be held accountable.

The premise here is that someone else will set these expectations. Again, maybe at McDonalds but in schools or many work places, these goals are largely built collaboratively. Even in classrooms with 7 year olds, the idea of co-constructing rules and expectations is a powerful way to establish trust and even purpose.

Invite Commitment

Although you may make these initial conditions and goals clear, it is important to have the team members commit to these standards and expectations. Work with your team to make sure that everyone commits to their role, understanding how it will benefit both the individual and the team. Be sure to put it in writing, too. This will give the commitment a physical representation that cannot be debated.

This might be translated as “buy in”. That’s largely what schools have done with teachers when it comes to new initiatives. They want teacher buy in. Tony Wagner recently said buy-in won’t work, we need ownership. That doesn’t happen through force or coercion. Too often we just want people to sign off on our idea. Instead, if we’ve done the first part but co-creating goals, there’s little need to talk about commitment. This is only an issue when you’re selling something, they don’t really want to buy.

Measure progress

Measure the progress of team members in alignment with the goals and expectations set out at the beginning. Goals can only be measured when they are quantified. Compare the measured results to the goals to find out where team members need the most improvement.

The term “measure” is the danger here. Having experienced the ludicrousness of “smart goals” this almost always leads to simplistic targets that can fit in a spreadsheet cell. I suppose in business, sales and dollars become the bottom line but schools can fall into a really bad place here. You can still have goals but many goals are not measurable. Rather than measure, I suggest document and reflect, re-evaluate and act.

Provide feedback

After setting clear expectations, committing to set goals, and measuring progress, it is important to provide feedback to team members so that there can be improvement towards the goal. When creating a culture of accountability, make sure that the feedback that you do give highlights both the positive things that the team member has done and the areas where they can improve.

Feedback is great, so what’s my beef here? Simply this is written as a one way interaction. It may infer a conversation but that’s not how it reads. I appreciate feedback but if it’s without a context and conversation, it’s much less valuable.

Link to consequences

Not all people are driven by internal motivating factors. So, in creating a culture of accountability, it is important to emphasize the link to consequences, whether as a ‘whip’ behind the team members to drive them forward, or as a carrot for them to chase. As a leader, it is key to assess and realize which type of motivation different people may need.

Read Drive.

His last point is less off putting.

Evaluate effectiveness

Not all methods of operation are effective! Waiting until the end of the process or project to evaluate the effectiveness can severely hamper the potential of you as an individual or your team as a whole. Step aside and assess the plan and the participating team members. Evaluate the effectiveness of each component, good and bad, in relation to the goal and mission.

Maybe I’m just in a cantankerous mood. I’m just not sure why people love the word accountability so much. Accountability is a useful if I ask for it. Having someone to be accountable for can be healthy but that’s my choice. All I know is that the reaction of others when they are told, they have to be accountable is not very desirable. I’ve had many conversations with people and bosses who’ve embraced this word, and as much as they don’t want it to be authoritarian, it is. You might say there are circumstance and places where that’s needed. If so,  I’ll leave with a quote from Pasi Salsberg which I’ve used often in presentations:

“There’s no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”