The Fundamental Importance of Management Accountability

Even for top executives, firm and fair accountability is no easy task.

Posted Jan 08, 2021

The notion of accountability has hung heavy in the air the past few days. After a mob overran the U.S. Capitol building, multiple questions of accountability were immediately and understandably raised. How could this happen? To what extent was the president responsible? What will be the legal consequences for his supporters? Was law enforcement negligent in its preparations? Finger-pointing has been swift and active.

 Karolina Grabowska / Pexels
Fairly and firmly holding people accountable isn't a simple job.
Source: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

Whatever the ultimate answers to such questions, the idea of fair and predictable accountability matters a great deal in any orderly society... and more specifically, for this space, in the practice of management. The tragic, chaotic events of this week have reminded me of a blog post I wrote several years ago for a corporate client, "The One Leadership Attribute CEOs Need to Drill Through Their Organizations." It was all about accountability, and the idea that it's a too-often-ignored but essential attribute for the smooth functioning of any organization (and, as we've just seen, country).

Yet the reality is that in the business world rationale, logical accountability is by no means as common as we might assume. One large study that appeared in Harvard Business Review showed that even when it came to global, high-level managers, 46% were rated poorly on the measure "holds people accountable — firm when they don't deliver." In short, nearly half of high-ranking executives had substantive problems with what would seem to be a fundamental aspect of management.

My own reaction to this data after roughly a quarter-century in the Fortune 500 world? It seems entirely consistent with my own experiences and observations. While some managers at all levels naturally are completely adept at holding their people accountable, the fact is effective accountability can be plain old hard. It can easily lead to interpersonal problems. Conflicts. Disputes. Anxiety. Stress. And thus is frequently consciously avoided.

Of course, accountability is also the job of management. Management can be hard, stressful work, which is why it's generally well-paid. It's not a walk in the park. As one of my favorite old sayings from Chairman Mao goes, "Revolution is not a dinner party." Nor is management. The best managers are unafraid to wade into conflict, but also recognize that conflicts need to be resolved thoughtfully and fairly, not unilaterally and autocratically. Which is why good management is invariably a delicate process.

To return to the current situation involving the catastrophic rampage at the U.S. Capitol... in the business world even if full accountability isn't always achieved, at least there's broad consensus what it looks like, as management has the clear right to impose certain performance standards. In the political world, circumstances are complicated by viewing events through the competing lenses of different parties and ideologies. Getting broad agreement on exactly what firm and fair accountability looks like in this instance will not be an easy task. Here's hoping the extreme gravity of the situation will make both sides put aside almost tribal differences and make the best possible decisions for the common good.