A cadre of authors and coaches promise bulletproof methods for molding more accountable employees, while leadership articles relentlessly laud accountability's virtues. Google NGram underscores the trend. The use of the word "accountability" in books has risen dramatically since the 1960s.
Need to solve an organizational problem? Proponents respond with their rallying cry: "make employees more accountable!"
As the main ingredient in a management recipe, it produces a predictable but bland dish: mediocrity. While the risk averse find accountability tasty, those with a passion for the exceptional avoid it like spoiled sushi.
No matter how proponents try to sanitize it, accountability implies consequence.
As an example, consider the HBR article, "Change Management Needs to Change". The author notes that "most studies still show a 60-70% failure rate for organizational change projects", blames the problem on "managerial capacity" that's "woefully underdeveloped" and goes on to suggest a solution. In part, the elixir is (drum roll please): more accountability!
The more disturbing part of the author's prescription is this statement regarding managers: "certain behaviors are rewarded or punished accordingly". Punished? Would this include adding a section to the Employee Manual titled "punishments"? Has this author found that "punished" employees deliver better results?
Consequence manifests as fear and fear is no way to lead. The problem with accountability as a management precept is clear: it misframes the relationship between a leader and their team. Excellence is sacrificed for mediocrity.
In its list of company values, Red Gate Software puts it this way: "Motivation isn’t about carrots and sticks – Constant oversight and the threat of punishment are incompatible with great, fulfilling work."
The disdain two legendary consultants have for accountability couldn't be stronger. W. Edwards Deming had this to say: "Hold everybody accountable? Ridiculous! " Tom Peters made his view clear on Twitter (June 3, 2012): "... Let's outlaw accountability!"
Without resorting to the semantical gymnastics in which advocates usually engage, is there compelling evidence that emphasizing accountability produces better results?