The irony is so rich and textured that it would be a delight to behold if it were not for the pain we all must endure. For the last few years, the calls for "a culture of accountability" have been all the rage ... and now the law of unintended consequences has come calling and is asking for its due.
Perfection Is a Cultural Prerequisite
I remember back in 1996 when business culture leaders asked workers to "do the right things right the first time." It took more than a decade to unravel the unintended consequences of that statement. In the hands of humans, "do the right things right the first time" became the culture of "no mistakes ... ever." That idea could not survive for long as the necessities of speed and scale became apparent.
Newer cultural ethics centered around speed and flexibility have since taken over, and their eventual correction has not yet appeared on the horizon. One ethic, however, is living on borrowed time: accountability.
Accountability is the mythical panacea that every executive craves. If accountability is present then everything is supposedly well in hand. If things are good, no worries. If things are bad, find whomever is accountable and take them to task. Almost every wish list from enterprise leaders contains desires for "a culture of accountability" as a lever to drive business results and a healthy culture. In the hands of reactive-minded humans, this principle has become something closer to sickness. The culture that we have attained in this quest for increased accountability has a few unsightly warts. What we have ended up with is a culture of blame in a constant and interconnected battle with the culture of plausible deniability.
It’s All About Me …
Unless it’s wrong. Then It’s about you.
How did this happen? It's quite simple. The architects of the messages neglected to consider a specific form of cognitive bias called attribution bias. Attribution bias is an omnipresent condition in the human race. People tend to over-value situational factors in their own behavior and under-valuing situational factors in the behavior of others.
If you consider yourself to be a fair judge in evaluating the behavior of yourself and others, imagine a time when you were driving your car. Now picture yourself being suddenly cut off by another driver. How likely are you to attribute blame by yelling or repeatedly honking your horn at the other driver while thinking to yourself, “What a jerk!”
Contrast this perspective to a time when you accidentally cut off another driver “because you were in a rush and did not notice them.” Attributing your behavior to context and situations while attributing the exact same behaviors in others to personality and character flaws is an unconscious cognitive bias that all humans display.
This unaddressed and uncorrected bias is rampant in corporate America. The “culture of accountability” movement has become an accelerator for attribution bias and ultimately has become a culture of holding others accountable for whatever misdeeds we can imagine. It has done nothing to work against one of the largest cultural deficits present in our society: introspection.
The downward spiral began when individuals started taking almost every opportunity to coax quantitative commitments out of individuals and groups, and then using these commitments to call for the “witch hunt” under the guise of “holding people accountable.” The inevitable counter movement set in when people began to hedge all commitments for as long as possible. Does this conversation ring a bell?
Player 1: “How long do you think that estimate will take?”
Player 2: “Hmmm. I have to think about that. Let me get back to you.”
Player 1: “OK. When should I expect to hear back from you?”
Player 2: "Hmmm. I have to think about that. Let me get back to you.”
Player 1: “Grrrrrrr”
Of course there are people who choose to lean in and embrace commitment and accountability, but they have now become an endangered species and their numbers appear to shrink every year. The fear of commitment gets even darker and more unproductive when the irresistible force meets the untouchable object and out pops the inevitable ending -- plausible deniability. Fast forward the above scene a few days and let’s peek in on our not-so-happy players:
Player 1: “Any progress on that estimate?”
Player 2: “It’s still in process. Sorry.”
Player 1: “I’ve been waiting for a week now and I’ve asked you more than five times. Why is this taking so long?”
Player 2: “In the first place, answering your incessant emails and phone calls on the subject keeps distracting us and don’t forget that we actually have several other projects running. If you want a firm commitment, go to leadership and get them to halt all of the other projects.”
Player 1: “They’ll never agree to that.”
Player 2: “Then you will need to be patient and wait your turn.”
Player 1: “Grrrrrrr”
Maybe it is about me after all.
So if we can all agree that the “Culture of Accountability” is not working as we thought it would, is there a better way to get to the original intention? How about this: Let’s create a “Culture of Self-Accountability.” Imagine a corporate ecosystem where people were encouraged to:
- Hold themselves accountable for their own performance rather than identifying circumstances that conspired to make them fail
- Look inward when things go awry rather than pointing fingers outward
- Make themselves responsible for fixing things rather than blaming others for broken things
- Think of chastisement as a last resort rather than a cultural virtue
Yes, some people would take advantage of the new cultural norm and squeak by. Show me the enterprise where this isn’t the current state. The enterprises where accountability is supposed to be paramount are the ones that appear the most immune from people taking responsibility for anything. Like all systems and ethics, this new model would have flaws. The important question in this case is “Are these flaws better than the ones we currently have?"
I, for one, would choose the flaw of “one too many slackers would go un-confronted.” We seem to be in a world where nobody can hold anyone accountable to anything that matters (not without a multi-month HR process) and the desire to confront others lengthens the time necessary to identify and cure the disease that ails us all.
Title image by Everett Collection (Shutterstock).