“Accountability” is a word that’s easy to throw around in an organization. It’s often pretty meaningless (or not well understood). What does it really mean?
People say things like:
“We need a culture of accountability.”
“We need to hold people accountable.”
When I hear that phrase, I like to call time out and ask, “What do you mean exactly? Give me an example of what you mean.”
People often don’t know. They just throw around that phrase.
Talking about accountability sounds nice. Leaders love talking about holding others accountable, even if they’re not personally being accountable for much of anything.
Unfortunately, in practice, the word “accountability” is often corporate speak for “let’s blame and punish people.”
Nobody intentionally says things like:
“We need a culture of blaming and punishing people for systemic problems”
“We need to blame and punish people.”
But that’s often what’s being done under the guise of “accountability.” It’s a code word, a way of saying the things that aren’t supposed to be said.
What does the word accountability even mean?
A dictionary definition says “accountable” means:
: required to explain actions or decisions to someone
I’d encourage you to try a similar exercise — when you hear people use the word “accountability” in your organization, ask them to step back and define what they mean exactly. Are they just blaming and punishing (or threatening)? Or, are they working to create a system in which people can choose to be accountable, working together to succeed instead of just making things look good?
Also see this post from last year: Lean, Deming, and “Accountability”
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