“Well, I’m an accountant, and consequently too boring to be of interest,” says John Cleese in response to a question in a man-in-the-street interview on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Accounting, and accountants, have a perhaps-not-entirely-undeserved reputation for being necessary but dull. (Disclosure – my father was an accountant, so I know whereof I speak.) Yet accountability, which shares a word root, is all the rage. I just did a Google search and a half dozen news headlines containing the word “accountability” from just this week appeared.
Moreover, at a Children’s Minnesota leadership forum last week, we addressed the topic of accountability, which leaders raised as a concern in a survey. Specifically, there is a belief that we have trouble with accountability. Our leaders are not unique: every place I have worked believes they have a unique problem holding people accountable. So it’s clearly not unique. But is it true? I think it is, albeit not in the way people think.
Let’s start with what we mean by accountability. It comes from the Latin root meaning to count, calculate, or reckon. In early use, it signified an ability to explain, specifically to reconcile an amount of money or valuables with which one was trusted. The concept of consequences was added later; it came to mean being able to prove that one has done right, to justify either reward or punishment. In current usage, it often focuses solely on the consequence part, and specifically on punishment. Every time I have had someone tell me an organization has a problem with accountability, what they mean is “So and so does a terrible job and they haven’t been punished or fired yet.”
Which may or may not be true. For one thing, firing is only the end of a long chain of consequences for poor performance, the rest of which may be invisible. (How many of us could say whether anyone we work with has been given warning, put on a performance improvement plan, or sacrificed some compensation because of their actions?) And those consequences are only the end of a long chain of the process of accountability. If we look at the full meaning of the word, it includes: 1) establishing expectations; 2) communicating expectations; 3) measuring progress toward expectations (these three are necessary for the part that means “proving one has done right”); 4) providing feedback on that progress and establishing a plan for improvement if expectations are not being met; 5) identifying gaps that may be contributing to not meeting expectations (either fixing system problems that create barriers or helping the accountable person develop the necessary skills); 6) progressive consequences for continuing to fail to meet expectations.
In other words, accountability is really just what we call “performance management.” Which means it is a process. But too often we think of accountability as an event – that person who is incompetent or lazy or unprofessional loses his or her job.
So do we have an accountability problem? Yes, we do. Holding ourselves and others accountable is difficult. First, we don’t always devote the time and effort we need to steps 1-3. I once had a chair who, despite never meeting me face to face, would send me an annual progress summary that read, in its entirety, “I have serious concerns about your progress toward promotion.” (Spoiler alert – I did OK.) As for feedback, that can be hard for multiple reasons. There is a saying, “Feedback is a gift.” Yet few of us approach receiving feedback with nearly the enthusiasm we have for Christmas or a birthday. Too often feedback is criticism, not a gift. We don’t want to be on the receiving end, and often not on the giving end. Especially in pediatric healthcare, where we are all nice and cheerful and positive. And in a place like ours, where people stick around and have worked up through the ranks, they may be giving that “gift” to someone who was once a colleague and friend. Now imagine having to actually change someone’s pay or relieve them of their job.
Yet at the same time, we usually do most of this quite well. For one thing, accountability is about justifying both punishments and rewards. If we were truly terrible about it, good people would be fleeing to places that recognized their values and rewarded them. And yes, there are always going to be challenging cases. But in an organization like ours that takes its mission of caring for kids seriously, the large majority of problems are actually dealt with quite effectively. We just don’t advertise them.
So to quote another of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, when I hear people say we have a problem with accountability, I think “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” The actual process of accountability – as opposed to the event of the final punishment that people usually think of as accountability – is, like accountants, dull but necessary, and often in the background.