By: Dwight mihalicz

Fall 2017 Issue

We all have obligations at work. And these obligations come at us from many directions - our peers, our clients, our subordinates, and yes, even our bosses. The progression of steps an individual goes through when receiving and performing assignments varies. This is all thought to have something to do with accountability. Yet for managers, ensuring subordinates are accountable while executing strategy is no easy feat. Let's examine the key concepts of accountability - what it is, how it impacts managers, and how to approach this critical piece of the puzzle for effective management.

We often hear accountability used to describe businesses that are “not being held accountable” or individuals “needing to take more accountability” for their actions and work. The starting point for understanding accountability in the organization is ‘work’. Work is at the core of achieving strategy and vision. While most organizations today do a reasonable job of outlining a 3, 5 or 10-year plan for success, few implement successfully. Fast-forward a few years from the approval of the strategy and many well-developed strategies did not achieve their original vision. Why? One reason is misaligned accountability, and the fact that managers have a difficult time getting everyone on the same page when it comes to strategy execution.

Several years ago, we set out to discover how managers could be more successful. In a major research program in partnership with the University of Ottawa, we identified a direct relationship between accountability and effectiveness. In organizations with high accountability, managers were more effective in their work, and thus, more successful. The correlation between accountability and effectiveness was high (.67), and highly statistically significant, illustrating a critical relationship between these two concepts.

If more accountability equals more effectiveness, then why the disconnect? As a starting point, there is no commonly understood definition of accountability. So, we created a working definition that consists of three main components: 

  • An obligation. There must be an obligation or duty to do something where someone is held to account.
  • An action. An individual is held to account for not just results, but also, actions. More than simply getting something done, accountability involves how it gets done.
  • A “specified other”. Beyond holding yourself liable, accountability requires a ‘specified other’ that holds you to account for doing something. In an organization, this is traditionally a manager.

Accountability is: An obligation for which one can be held to account for one’s results and one’s actions by a specified other. This brings us to the main point: what is it about this concept that makes it so difficult to understand?

Accountability versus responsibility. 
Accountability isn’t the easiest term to grasp, and there’s often a tendency to confuse it with responsibility. Here’s how the two are different. With accountability, someone is held to account and the action must result. By contrast, responsibility is more values driven, coming from within. In other words, one who is accountable must complete something. But one who feels responsible truly believes that what they need to do is important. To be clear, responsibility is essential in organizations. Workers should feel responsible for doing good work and completing tasks. Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between responsibility and accountability.

In addition to confusing accountability with responsibility, through our research we discovered that there are two dimensions of accountability. Felt accountability is how strongly you feel accountable for doing good work. Clarity of accountability is how clear you are about those things for which you are accountable. In our research database, managers self-reported 8.7 out of 10 for felt accountability — a clear indication that they felt fairly accountable for their work. Interestingly, they had much less clarity of accountability, identifying 7.1 out of 10.

In many organizations, strategic direction is articulated by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). But, if he or she isn’t clear with subordinate Vice Presidents in terms of what they are accountable for doing, then organizational drift occurs. From the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to the Chief Operations Officer (CFO) through all the VP-level roles, each VP looks at work through her or his own unique filter, impacting how they execute and set priorities.

Clarity of accountability, starting at the very top and throughout the entire organization ensures everyone is pulling the company in the same direction, reinforcing each other’s work with complete transparency about what they are accountable for. When this happens, smart decision-making occurs and employees take initiatives with certainty that they are helping the organization do the work that is most important.

How accountability evolves in organizations
Understanding where accountability comes from in organizations is best understood using an example of how accountability and authority evolve as organizations mature.

Consider, for example, you decide to start a company. As the sole owner, you have full discretion to run it as you see fit. If someday you sell a portion of your company to an investor, as most do, those investors will want to have a say over what the company does and how it operates, and may impose conditions to which you and your staff, are bound. If more people invest, they too will want to have a say in the organization and may want to impose their own conditions. Since it’s not practical to have dozens or hundreds of investors all imposing their own conditions or agreeing on a set of policies, everyone who owns a portion of the company instead authorizes a group of industry experts to represent them and oversee their investments. In large organizations, there are often thousands of investors (shareholders) who hold an annual general meeting to elect these industry experts. The group they elect is called the Board of Directors.

The board of directors is given the accountability and authority to govern the organization between meetings. They are accountable for specific tasks which change from organization to organization, but typically include approving the strategic plan, approving the budget, appointing auditors and appointing a CEO. They are accountable to the shareholders to govern the organization’s operations and to oversee the work of the senior staff person operate the organization. This is done by hiring and engaging employees. This process is important because, in all organizations, accountability stems from its owners. While the mechanisms vary by sector, the fundamental process is the same for all organizations.

Streams of accountability in organizations
The staff organization can vary widely, from an owner with a few employees, to regional organization with manufacturing, sales and delivery functions, to a global conglomerate with many separate business lines. They all have one thing in common: individuals are accountable for doing good work that contributes to the achievement of the organization’s strategy.

Each front-line worker has obligations for which they are held to account by their manager (the ‘specified other’ in our definition). Each manger in turn has obligations for which they are held to account by their manager, and so on all the way up to the owner, or CEO, who is in turn accountable to the board of directors, who in turn are accountable to the owners.

Everyone working in an organization has an obligation to some specified other for their results and actions, and every manager is tasked with holding their direct reports accountable for a portion of that for which they themselves are accountable. It’s also important to understand that one is not absolved of accountability by delegating it to the next level down. Accountability at each level in the organization is within the context of the work that needs to be done at the next level up. A key part of each manager’s job is to determine, from among all their accountabilities, what they must do personally and what they can apportion and delegate to team members.

How does organizational drift occur?
If we think about the organization in terms of accountability, the board of directors is delegated the accountability and authority by the owners to ensure the organization is serving their interests. The board then appoints a CEO, to whom who they delegate the accountability and authority necessary to lead the organization. The CEO must then break up this accountability and authority into smaller chunks which are then delegated to subordinate managers. These managers, in turn delegate even smaller chunks to their direct reports and so on. An important part of each manager’s job is therefore figuring out how to break up the work that they are accountable for into manageable chunks which can then be delegated down the organization.

This is where clarity of accountability becomes so critical because if the CEO is not absolutely clear with her or his subordinate managers, they will apply their own unique filters which will impact how they execute and set priorities. Those in the next level down will naturally do the same and the results will end up being quite different from what was originally intended. We call this organizational drift.

The rampant failure of organizations to successfully execute their strategies teaches us that clarity of accountability is critical at every level of the organization to ensure that everyone is pulling the company in the same direction, reinforcing each other’s work with complete transparency and in a concerted way.

So, why does accountability matter?
Too often, accountability in organizations isn’t well understood and it isn’t well implemented. When you are accountable, you are expected to answer for not only the results you achieve, but also the actions you take. Accountability is the clear diver of effectiveness in organizations. Organizations that have managers who are clearer about their accountability are more effective. The correlation is extremely high.

There’s plenty of research to support the idea that managerial effectiveness matters in organizations. A recent Gallup study tells us that ineffectively managed work groups are fifty percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than those who are managed effectively. Another study found that 70 percent of employees leave a job for reasons directly controllable by their managers (Branham, Leigh. The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It’s Too Late).

We conducted our own research with the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, and we found that managers only spend 55 percent of their time on value-added work. That means a whopping 45 percent of time is spent on work that is not value-added. Are CEO’s asking their managers to come to work half way through the day or half way through the work week? Of course not! Yet we allow this to take place in organizations. Why?

With these statistics in mind, clearly, managers are not able to focus on value-added work—or work that only they, in their position, with their capability, can do. So what is value-added work? Basically, there are three types of managerial work:

  • Day-to-day, continuous improvement work;
  • Projects or change initiatives;
  • Managerial leadership.

It is the first two types of work are often considered urgent. Managers must handle day-to-day workflow. Project assignments usually come with a specific deadline. So where will the focus be, especially since managers are spending only about half their time on their value-added work?  It is the third type of work, managerial leadership, which inevitably suffers. It is simply too easy to cancel the team meeting or reschedule that performance feedback session, or cancel the weekly one-on-one.

Yet it is exactly this work, the managerial leadership work that managers must be accountable for carrying out, that ensures organizational success. This is the work that pulls everyone together to achieve strategy, and it is work that only managers can do.

Managerial Leadership Drives Business Success
In a 1994 Harvard Business Review piece on his extensive research, James Heskitt put forth the idea that high employee satisfaction drives customer satisfaction, which drives revenue and profit. In other words, if you have more satisfied employees, you create more satisfied customers and that creates more profit for you (or better outcomes in the nonprofit world).

While this is true, what has been lost over the years is that Heskett was quite clear that it is managerial leadership that is the fundamental driver. Yet over the past few years, the focus has been on employee satisfaction or employee engagement. How do we make the environment and the job more satisfying so employees can be more engaged? As a result, less attention is paid to the driver of engagement: managerial leadership. We are missing the big picture, and this is to the detriment of organizations from an accountability and managerial leadership standpoint.

Although there is no magic pill for driving organizational success, returning the focus to accountability as a concept is a good starting point. The question is, how do we make sure people understand what they are accountable for and that they will be called to task for it? Second, how do we ensure managers are carrying out their accountability for their managerial leadership work?

There are many formulas, yet this is how work gets done and how we can help people focus on doing the right work. As we’ve seen from the research and data on managerial leadership, ensuring accountability in organizations and getting those pieces in place is paramount.

In Summary
Each individual in your organization has obligations for which they are accountable, but always within the context of the next level up. It is the combined efforts of the team, when combined with the value-added work of the manager, that enable the manager to be successful. Each role at each level of the organization must clearly understand the work for which they are accountable and the authority that they have to do that work.

In many cases, managerial effectiveness pivots on whether or not clear accountabilities are set for employees and subordinates. The workforce will undoubtedly feel accountable for doing good work. The question is whether or not they will feel accountable for doing the right work — that which will help achieve the strategy.

This is the definition of an effective manager, and why accountability is so important. Managers must define clear expectations so that their team members know exactly what it is they will be held accountable for as they go about their work.

Dwight Mihalicz helps organizations improve performance. He focuses on manger effectiveness, ensuring that all managers, from the CEO to the front line, are focused on their key strategic priorities and have the accountability and authority required for success. Dwight has founded and is President of Effective Managers™, a management consulting firm based in Canada, providing services globally. The firm uses the Effective Managers™ Survey to assess manager effectiveness, and The Effective Point of Accountability® to help organizations focus managers on the right work while breaking down silos. He is also Chair of ICMCI (CMC-Global), of which CMC-Canada is one of its 50 members. To learn more about Dwight's work, visit: Check out his YouTube channel for free VidCasts and recorded Webinars.