Conventional wisdom too often turns managers into slave drivers

To be accountable means to be liable to give an account of your actions and their results. It should not mean either accepting a duty to deliver those results, come what may; or always carrying the blame if results fall short. We are all accountable for our actions, but not in the way that is often interpreted. Today’s myths of management accountability are destroying careers and making the workplace into a forced-labor camp.

When things go wrong, the first impulse of many people is to look for a scapegoat. “Who is to blame for this?” they yell. “Heads must roll!”

Even a cursory glance at reality will tell you that heads rarely roll amongst those in senior positions. If any must be sacrificed to pay for the shortfall, it will be some hapless middle manager who wasn’t able to shift the blame elsewhere fast enough.

But what benefit arises from such purges? Do they represent anything save public relations: seeming to take resolute action to buy off criticism, while doing nothing to address the basic causes of the problem?

As Peter Cook once said to Dudley Moore in one of their famous TV sketches: “I believe I have learned all there is to learn from my mistakes. Indeed, I can repeat every one perfectly at the drop of a hat.”

What does accountability entail?

We hear a great deal about holding managers accountable. It is, if you like, the serious and acceptable face of the lust for scapegoats. In the Hamburger Management Game Plan that is in use by so many organizations today, there is no room for subtlety or shades of gray. You either deliver the expected results—however ridiculous those expectations are—or you are “held accountable.”

It’s a neat, satisfying doctrine . . . and almost completely false.

Shouldn’t managers be held accountable for what they do? Isn’t that the essence of what it means to accept a managerial position? Managers are charged to get things done as requested, and must suffer the consequences if they fail.

This, of course, assumes that results flow neatly from actions. So any shortfall can fairly be traced back to some managerial blunder.

In reality, chance accounts for results—good or bad—at least as much as anyone’s effort—usually more. Effort is often thwarted by a range of problems from poor strategy to uncooperative colleagues and unexpectedly resourceful competitors. Much genuine hard work goes to waste through chance events and unforeseen changes in circumstances.

True accountability

Accountability did not originally imply either responsibility or blame. It simply meant that the person was liable to give an account of their actions: to explain or defend them in a higher court—whether that meant the top executives, the shareholders, or the court of public opinion.

A game plan that imposes blind demands and punishes people who fail to meet them, for almost any reason, is a tyranny, not a management technique. The steady stream of executives facing charges of insider trading, falsifying accounts, and manipulating returns shows you the levels of desperate action people feel they must use to cope with the demands to be “accountable.”

Accountable managers should be able to give account of their stewardship and be listened to with care. Not only is that a civilized way to behave; it’s the best way to discover the true reasons for events, so that appropriate action can be taken. To be allowed to explain is what you expect for adult professionals. To be blamed without the opportunity to be understood is the kind of punishment inflicted on servants or slaves by tyrannical masters.

Focus on the real cause of your problem

Let’s return to the true meaning of accountability. When things go wrong, make people explain and account for their actions. Give them a chance to defend what they have done, before they are thoughtlessly condemned.

If more organizations were to do that—and do it genuinely, not as a sop to PR, with the verdict already decided—most would discover that the causes for poor results or operational problems have little or nothing to do with the manager in question, or his or her team.

Poor systems, poor strategy, penny pinching, following fads and fashions, inadequate products and—yes—sheer bad luck are the most common causes of what goes wrong in organizations. The punishment of scapegoats simply proves a way to avoid placing the blame where it really lies.

By substituting a set of myths, based on supposed personal accountability for everything, today’s macho management approaches actually prevent organizations from improving what most needs to be improved—their systems and policies.

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