The Accountability Trap

We hear a lot about accountability in corporate cultures, as if somehow it is a good thing to expect and encourage. The term has always bothered me. The concept seems all wrong, but I have struggled to understand why. I have been comparing the idea of accountability with that of responsibility. Are they different?

Turning to the dictionary isn’t a great help, as each term references the other, as if they are somehow synonyms. They are not, but it takes careful reading to tease out the differences. The term Accountable includes definitions such as “required or expected to justify actions or decisions”“subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something”“capable of being explained; explicable; explainable”. Much emphasis on explanation and justification. The term Responsible offers “having a capacity for moral decisions…capable of rational thought or action”. More focus on personal commitment. Subtle, but important differences.

I think the key lies in the preposition that most commonly follows each term. We are accountable to (a person or entity), whereas we are responsible for (a behavior, action or decision), The former creates a power dynamic, requiring one to explain or justify a behavior or outcome to another, whereas the latter creates a sense of belonging, a oneness of the self with the behavior (or outcome). This matters.

In attempting to create new systems of governance in corporations these subtle differences are important. I believe in, and have written about, the need to move away from a leadership mindset to a citizenship mindset. This requires that everyone consider carefully what their purpose is. While we focus on the other person, and trying to please them, we lose sight of both ourselves, and the wider community. Accountability will take us down the path of compliance. Responsibility will takes us to a place of collaboration and community.

The failure of accountability as a driving concept is beautifully expressed by Pasi Sahlberg of the Finland school reform program: “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” [ref] We seek accountability because we haven’t learned the value of personal responsibility, because we seek to please, and because we are so used to doing what we are told, thus closing down our inquiring minds. This is the accountability trap. It keeps us safe, but imprisoned.

Removing accountability is scary. When there is no one to be accountable to there is the danger of a community lapsing into anarchy and self-interest. On the other hand, without the burden of accountability we are offered the opportunity to create an honorable society of caring, inquiring human beings. The choice—and it truly is a choice—is ours to make.


See also the follow-up post Accountability & Agreement.

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