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The Problem With Accountability

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

A longtime colleague in leadership training and consulting recently said to me during a discussion, “You know, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea of ‘accountability’”.

His reasoning was this. In his opinion, our current society is fundamentally unjust in a multitude of ways. This, he felt, also plays out in the culture of organizations. Therefore, his conclusion was that individual accountability within organizations serves to reinforce injustice. The implication of this being that leaders should focus their efforts on establishing a “just” organizational culture and deemphasize personal accountability, since even some of the worst workplace behavior could simply be a response to the generalized injustice inherent in our society. More or less.

I suspect, he figured we’d then debate the relative “justness” of our current socio-political situation. And as happens with most of these conversations, there’s an inevitable gravity that pulls people into a handful of oversimplified and predetermined ideological boxes. Instead, I took a different tack.

I’d always known my friend to be an honorable, trustworthy, and moral person. I said, “I know in the past you’ve worked for a few truly unethical organizations and bosses, yes?”

He agreed.

Then I asked, “When you worked for those organizations, did you ever steal, defraud anyone, or otherwise try to purposely hurt or undermine anyone?”

“Of course not.”, he responded.

“Why not?”, I asked.

He paused. After a few moments he replied, “Well that’s just something I would never do.”

“Even in one of those horrible companies where you said the leadership treated you awfully and had sketchy ethics?”

“No. I would never ‘lower myself’ like that. I always tried to rise above it.”, he said straightforwardly. I believed him, because that is precisely the person I’d always known him to be.

“So,” I asked, “Why would you want to give someone else an excuse to lower themselves like that?”

I didn’t intend it as gotcha, but I was trying to make a point. He’s a compassionate guy and an excellent boss in his own right. He is seeing what he truly feels to be vast social ills and he wants to make sure his leadership practice, and what he teaches, doesn’t add to the burden for those with less power. However, he was in the midst of making a fundamental error.

The presence of injustice does not justify unjust individual behavior. In fact, it calls for precisely the opposite. As my friend did in his own choices, the appropriate response to any injustice is to double-down on our adherence to the very values and morals it pains us to see being violated – not throw them out the window.

Injustice (however defined) never absolves individuals from their responsibility to act morally and take responsibility for the decisions they make. Stealing is still stealing, whether in the most corrupt organization or society on the planet or the most stunningly perfect. Lying about another in order to undermine them is always the wrong thing to do, whether that person is Mother Theresa or Mao Tse Tung. These things are the wrong thing to do, not only because of how they impact others, but also because of how such behavior changes us.

In regard to organizational leadership, my friend was partially right. I appreciated his sincere question. However, the answer is both/and not either/or. Culture is important. Stewarding a just and moral organizational culture is a fundamental responsibility for all leaders. However, no matter the state of a culture, individuals are still responsible for their behavior and the choices they make.

Perhaps the real question my friend was asking was this. Even though he always strove to do the right thing under unjust conditions, he was questioning whether it was fair to ask others to do the same? The answer is yes. Yes it is.

To do otherwise, is actually an injustice in-and-of itself. To do otherwise would be to say that I am an empowered and capable person, but you are simply a victim who cannot be expected to do what’s right under adverse conditions.

It’s culture and accountability together that make the difference – and leaders are responsible for both.

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