Printer Friendly

Who's accountable for accountability?

Karen Jacobs sat in her office with a sense of growing anger and apprehension. She was reviewing the proposal from the "P-5" team and was more appalled than inspired. The team had been launched in accordance with HR's emphasis on self-managed teams and had sent in several excellent initial reports and proposals. Things had gotten off to such a refreshing start that she had given the team total freedom to work in an unsupervised manner. The team had picked a pair of recent hires as team leaders, ostensibly because of their newness to the company and their fresh ideas.

Karen's concern began when the team had asked for an extension because of scheduling problems and lack of needed information. She wished now that she had monitored the work more closely but reasoned that the purpose of self-managed teams was to remove the influence of the so called "oppressive management hierarchy" and free the team to work on its own.

The final report before her was of mixed quality; some of the ideas were quite good but others were mediocre. Unfortunately, areas she had specifically stressed were totally inadequate or missing altogether. She had been informed confidentially that Finance wasn't really committed and had reluctantly sent only a junior representative to work with the team.

Karen was due to present the work to the Management Committee in five days. It would take four days just to corral the finance people, do the projections, finish the work and clean up the recommendations.

Somebody on the team had done exemplary work, but others had dropped the ball. Karen knew that the Management Committee would certainly hold her accountable for the report, but what was she to do about the team and its work? Two of the members were from her department and it seemed unfair to stick them with the entire failure.

Four months of team meetings had transpired and she was on the firing line. As she asked her secretary to cancel all meetings for the next three days, Karen wondered who was accountable for this mess.

Ask any manager about "accountability" and he or she will tell you that it's a great thing to have. Ask them how to get it, however, and the long answers begin. The answers become even more vague when you consider that many organizations are moving to self-managed and cross functional teams and semi-autonomous work groups.

Accountability often gets relegated to the bin of "antiquated thinking" and is considered a part of the relics of "old hierarchical management methodology". But the problem refuses to go away because when things go wrong (or just as importantly, well) who gets the blame (or credit)?

Is there really a problem with accountability? Everyone is committed, motivated, interested and eager to contribute to the company's success. Isn't that better than the old system of bureaucracy where blame, passing the buck and "cya" were the norm?

Quite frankly, one cannot avoid the issues surrounding accountability. You either have accountability or you don't. Many companies think they do ... but don't.

Take Karen's situation. Can she as a manager really hold a team accountable for a piece of work? You think you know what it means to hold an individual accountable, but does the word have the same meaning when applied to a team or unit? For example, have you ever heard of an entire team being fired, or promoted for that matter?

Certainly, bonuses get handed out but usually everyone receives the same amount. Does that really reflect the differential contributions from the team members? Most times is does not. And what about the high-capability workers the next time around? The grapevine probably knows who worked hard and contributed, but that's not much of a basis for compensation.

Should we scrap all our teams and working units, even whole departments, and have everyone working on his or her own? Obviously not. Working groups, teams, departments, task forces and other collective entities are often able to accomplish infinitely more than individuals. But much of their potential is wasted unless harnessed through appropriate structure and monitored by means of individual accountability.

The Necessary Conditions

for Accountability

Management theorist Elliott Jaques points out that if A is to hold B accountable for the work output of C, then four fundamental conditions must be present. If they are not, accountability cannot exist and no amount of "group thinking" will make it so.

Let's take manager A who wants to hold her subordinate unit manager B accountable for the work produced by the units members, C. A must grant the following conditions to B:

1. The right to veto any forced assignment

of unit members.

A manager cannot force a subordinate to have team or unit members whom she simply cannot work with or feels are incapable of doing the work. After discussion and negotiation, B must agree that she has team members who can get the job done. They may not form the "perfect union" but she must get a minimally acceptable configuration in order to be held accountable for their work output.

2. The right to decide tasks and

hand out work assignments.

If B is to be held accountable, then she must be empowered to decide who delegates the work and controls overall direction. Obviously, A provides the larger context and ensures that the work is performed within company policy, but B has to have the authority to decide what the work assignments are and who does what. This means no "micro-managing" from A. Otherwise, it becomes A's project and therefore, A's accountability.

3. The right to make final judgment

on performance review and


B must have the authority to evaluate the personal effectiveness of the Cs and make decisions regarding merit raises within their pay scale and/or award bonuses for performance. In other words, while B cannot promote someone to a new rank (that would presumably be A's decision), she should hand out rewards and control raises/bonuses within her working unit. If A overrides her judgment, B loses accountability for the unit's performance (not to mention credibility and respect).

4. The right to initiate, with due

process, the removal of employees

from the unit.

If some employees do not work out, cannot be coached into acceptable performance or do not comply with company rules, B must have the authority to begin due process of removing them from her unit. Note well that this does not necessarily mean firing the employees, but to begin the process of placing them elsewhere in the company. If B is insistent, then should A keep these employees there against B's will? If so, one of the primary conditions of accountability will have been violated.

Karen might have avoided this personally stressful and organizationally wasteful experience by handling the above-described situation as follows:

1. Never let the team choose its own leader. In the same way that a team (as a group) cannot be held accountable for a piece of work, they cannot be held accountable for selecting their own leader. Karen should have chosen the team leader, using her judgment and knowledge of the company and the talent available. This does not mean she should not ask for volunteers or avoid participation in the decision making process. In short, the team leader is accountable to her; she needs to make the decision.

2. Following selection, Karen should have established deadlines and helped the team leader form the unit, including obtaining the required resources from the other departments. Her clout was needed to get the people and work output from Finance; it's hopeless for a junior manager (B) to "demand" that someone attend team meetings or perform the required work. Likewise, the team leader should never have accepted the assignment unless she was given the necessary resources to accomplish the work.

3. Only one person can ever be assigned the ultimate accountability for a unit or team. Co-leaders sound nice, but do you really promote (or demote) them as a "team" or do you deal with them in their career advancements as individuals? Co-leadership is often a way of lessening the anxiety of true accountability and Karen should have emphasized this with her team leader when setting up the team. The formula is simple - one team (or unit), one accountable person.

4. Adequately evaluating the efforts and outputs of individual team members is a difficult and almost completely ignored problem. if a team is composed of organizational equals, it may be difficult or virtually impossible for a team leader to make realistic judgments about the team members' quality of output. The situation is simpler if a senior manager heads up a team of more junior contributors because the senior manager is capable of realistically evaluating the differential contributions of the members.

An organizationally equal team leader discussing the allegedly poor work output of a team member with the member's direct superior is fraught with difficulty and should be avoided by having the comments and information relayed to the team leader's boss (Karen in this case). This boss is then accountable for how she uses this information and must make a managerial judgment about how to relay the information to the member's boss.

Comments about participation, missed deadlines or attendance are easily observed and can be passed on as factual information to the team leader's boss. Ruling on the quality of output is a much more difficult task and requires the perspective of a more senior (and more capable) manager. Again, it is simpler in the direct unit because Karen clearly has the authority and hopefully the capability of making the judgment. With teams, especially carelessly formulated ones, this issue can be insidiously destructive.

5. Appropriate review meetings are important for the work of any team or unit. If Karen determines that things are not going well or that her choice in a team leader was incorrect, she still has time to make adjustments or coach the leader in the appropriate direction.

6. If the team's final work is unsatisfactory, Karen now has a clear knowledge of who was in charge and can decide what to do next. The team leader is clearly accountable; on this point there can be no doubt. She may seek to understand the situation or coach, but the accountability is unambiguous.

We are verging on an accountability crisis today that goes beyond work teams such as Karen's. Whether flat or hierarchical, Fortune 500 or just beginning, companies often lack a clear and understandable structure that makes managers and subordinates accountable for their work. Accountability is a fundamental principle of business success - when accountability is clear, productivity and efficiency follow. And that's really what good managers are all shooting for.

How to Get Accountability

for Team Output

For a team leader to be held accountable for the work of the team, he or she must have:

1. The right to veto any member of

the team.

2. The right to decide on work

assignments in the team and to

hand out tasks and deadlines.

3. The right to relay information

and comments back to the team

leader's manager (not the team

member's manager) about the

participation and contribution of

the team members.

4. The right to initiate (with due

process) the removal of any

member of the team.

Donald Brookes is director of the Canadian Regional Office of The Harding Consulting Group located in Toronto, Ontario. The North American management consulting firm also has regional offices in New York, Miami and Houston.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Brookes, Donald
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Previous Article:Add value to your marketing.
Next Article:Is your business being defrauded?

Related Articles
The accountable organization.
Harvard study group finds fault with FNGA.
Vouch for it.
Accountability in primary health care nursing: primary health care nurses need to be fully aware of all legislation, regulations and policies that...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters