Six Key Principles of Corporate Accountability
by Shaun Murphy, Ph.D. and Bruce Klatt, M.A.

We believe that people have lost sight of what it means to be accountable in organizations and have confused this concept with blame and punishment. This article is an effort to shed some light on accountability and in doing so engage the productive potential of the term.

As long as people see accountability as a threat instead of an opportunity they will find clever ways to avoid ownership of outcomes, disguise initiatives as imperatives, and confuse results with effort.

The first element that we need to address is that the foundation of any 'good faith' business transaction is the expectation of a fair deal for all concerned. In complex organizational relationships, it is all too easy to lose sight of the existence and terms of this deal. As a prime example, that particular employer/employee relationship, called a job, appears as a fair deal wherein the employer's money is traded for the employee's time and talent. The deeper reality, however, is that the employer is actually trading resources for a set of desirable results, which the employee is expected to deliver. The promise to faithfully deliver as agreed by both parties is the essence of accountability. To 'do what you say you will do without excuses' is the foundation of credibility which makes all business deals possible, including those specific deals called jobs.

We recommend that organizations document these bargains called jobs and give voice to individuals' accountabilities through a process called an Accountability Agreement. An Accountability Agreement clearly states the results that each member of an organization, from the most senior to the most junior, is expected to bring about [For specific examples of Accountability Agreements, please see our online tool at http://www.AlignOnline.com]. The following six principles form the foundation for negotiating and understanding accountability. Together they form a practical theory of accountability, the transforming effect it can have on an organization, its essential role in creating significant business results and how it helps to avoid the unproductive trap of focusing on blame and punishment.

I. Accountability is a Statement of Personal Promise

Accountability is both a promise and an obligation to deliver specific, defined results. Accountability, as we define it, does not apply in an abstract way to departments, work groups, or entire organizations. Accountability applies to individuals and their personal promise that these functions will deliver the agreed results. Accountability is first and foremost a personal commitment to the organization and to those the organization serves. It is more than just trying, doing your best, or behaving in certain ways. Accountability empowers individuals to push their circle of influence outwards in pursuit of results.

II. Accountability for Results Means Activities aren't Enough

Everyone in an organization, from the CEO to the janitor, has some piece of the business and a corresponding set of results which are theirs to achieve. Distinguishing results from activities requires a shift in traditional thinking built on an awareness of why we do what we do. For example, a typical supervisor's job description includes activities such as "training," "performance evaluations," and "timely communication". In contrast, a supervisor's accountabilities should include a result such as "the success of all direct reports." This concept addresses the common observation that everyone is busy but only some people are productive.

III. Accountability for Results Requires Room for Judgment and Decision Making

If you're not allowed to use any judgment or discretion on the job, if you're told to follow the rules no matter what, if no decision is up to you, then your boss can only hold you accountable for activities. You can be held accountable for doing what you're told, but you can't be held accountable for the outcome. Judgment and innovation can never be fully described in a job description. When employees are expected to be resourceful in the achievement of results, they are held accountable for capturing opportunities or ignoring them.

IV. Accountability is Neither Shared nor Conditional

Accountability Agreements are individual, unique, and personal strategies. No two people at the same level in an organization should have the exact same accountabilities. Separating each person's accountabilities can be challenging, but valuable clarity results from the struggle to eliminate overlaps.

V. Accountability for the Organization as a Whole Belongs to Everyone

Every employee's first accountability is for thinking about and acting on what is best for the organization, even if doing so means putting aside one's individual, functional, or departmental priority. The most successful organizations expect and allow every person to be of practical assistance in realizing the organization's goals.

VI. Accountability is Meaningless Without Consequences

In Accountability Agreements, positive consequences that focus on success instead of failure need to be negotiated. Negotiated consequences that are personally significant to the unique employee in question are an essential element of Accountability Agreements and are fundamental to forging a fair deal. This is a key step in the personal communication process underlying an interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship with one's employer.

Organizational accountability entirely subverts the tendency to make excuses and shift blame. When employees make clear and specific commitments for their own work based on clear expectations and proportional rewards, entire organizations become aligned and achieve specific measurable results.


Shaun Murphy, Ph.D. and Bruce Klatt, M.A. are senior partners in Murphy Klatt Consulting. This article has been adapted from a chapter of their book, Accountability: Getting a Grip on Results (2nd Ed.1997). Their other publications include Aligned Like a Laser (2004), The Encyclopedia of Leadership (2001), and The Ultimate Training Handbook (1999). They are internationally recognized experts in the field of Accountability Alignment, Organizational Effectiveness, and Project Development whose books have sold over 100,000 copies internationally. For more information please go to http://www.murphyklatt.com or try their online Accountability Alignment tool at http://www.AlignOnline.com .

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Copyright 2005 by Shaun Murphy and Bruce Klatt. All rights reserved.

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