When Did Accountability Become a Bad Word?

Accountability Disguised as Performance

Did accountability become a bad word with the implementation of performance management systems and the annual performance evaluation meeting? Probably. Few people look forward to their annual review even when they know they have performed well. Perhaps it is the judging and imposition of consequences; reminiscent of reporting to the Principal’s office.

Fewer words in corporate vernacular induce a tighter wince than “accountability,” and for good reason. Companies and leaders have grappled with what it is and how to achieve it effectively for decades. Ask anyone if they look forward to their performance evaluation or periodic check-in with their boss, and most will give an emphatic “no.”

Ron Carucci, “How to Actually Encourage Employee Accountability“, HBR November 2020

Unsurprisingly, accountability has such a negative connotation that we refer to “that meeting” as the annual performance review or performance evaluation instead of what it really is, the annual accountability meeting. Disguising accountability as performance immortalizes it as a bad word.

Reset Performance Systems

There are many reasons why companies substitute performance for accountability. One positive reason is that a performance review discussion can recognize accomplishments while positioning failures as “development opportunities.” That can be a good thing unless the “development opportunity” presents itself on a recurring basis. However, the list of less positive reasons for the pretense is substantial. Ron Carucci’s excellent article cited above documents them.

  • Flawed systems account for 82% of managers acknowledging that they have “limited to no” ability to hold others accountable successfully.
  • Research confirms how insignificant today’s accountability systems make employees feel.
  • Gallup found that only 14% of employees feel their performance is managed in a way that motivates them.
  • 21% of employees feel their performance metrics are within their control.

The bullets above represent a partial list of reasons why people dread their performance evaluations. Never the less, they are adequate to explain accountability’s negative connotation. I believe a reset is in order. It is time to redefine accountability, rethink how we hold employees accountable, and implement new systems of accountability.

Redefine Accountability

Accountability is defined as: “The fact or condition of being accountable; The state of being accountable or answerable; responsibility for the fulfillment of obligations; liability to account for conduct.” While the definition is neutral, examples given are almost always negative and punishing. Besides, most performance evaluations result in positive consequences for average or above average performance – that is accountability, too! Instead of moving away from accountability, we need to move toward it and embrace it. So, here is what we need now:

  • A Workplace Accountability System that gives employees what they want and need including:
    • Direction-they are on the right path
    • Confirmation-they are doing well along the way
    • Consistent communication about the value of their work
    • Gallup: “They want clear expectations, accountability, a rich purpose, and especially ongoing feedback and coaching.”
  • Engaged managers who:
    • Have the character to hold themselves accountable
    • Demonstrate the skills to hold others accountable
    • Are committed to developing their employees
  • Leaders who are committed to creating a culture of accountability

I contend that accountability is not a bad word and my mission is to change attitudes accordingly. That being the case, leaders and managers should call accountability by its name and resist the urge to disguise it. Join our Accountability is Good for Business movement to promote and implement an accountability information and communication system that will benefit you, your team, and your company.

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