Common Myths of Accountability – Debunked!

By Mark Samuel

Accountability is one of the most misunderstood terms in organizational development. When people hear the word “accountability,” they often think of being the only one responsible for a project or of letting down the team and being punished for it. And for many, this is how accountability plays out in their organization. But this is a huge misinterpretation and misuse of the concept. 

True accountability is not only a nice thing to have within an organization; it’s essential. Below are four myths about accountability and the truths that should replace them.

Myth No. 1: Accountability is an individual “sport.”

The Truth: Accountability is a team “sport” where success depends on team execution, support and transparent communication.

When it comes to organizations, success involves multiple teams, both functional and cross-functional. While individuals do have their own responsibilities and must carry their own weight, there are many responsibilities that intersect between different individuals. Everyone on the team must work together toward common desired outcomes, taking responsibility for their habits as a collective team to make sure customers are clients are well served and business goals are met.

Myth No. 2: Accountability is about keeping promises and completing the tasks you’ve agreed to.

The Truth: Accountability is about accomplishing the deliverables and outcomes that the team has agreed to.

The belief that individuals and teams are accountable for completing tasks, doing what they said they were going to do and keeping commitments is a short-sighted view of accountability. What if your tasks and commitments aren’t achieving your desired outcomes or business results? Then you are only accountable for activity without a clear purpose. Many organizations are stuck in busyness that wastes time, energy and effort because the focus is on doing instead of outcomes. 

Myth No. 3: Being held accountable means being punished when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.

The Truth: Being held accountable means surfacing issues before they impact the outcomes you’re looking for.

Human error, as well as external, uncontrollable forces, will always have a role in accountable organizations — and that’s OK. A crucial part of accountability is forgiveness, as is flexibility when things don’t go as planned. Punishment and shame negatively impact an individual’s ability to perform their job and create an unsafe environment where issues are hidden instead of surfaced due to fear (of being held “accountable”). An accountable organization creates a safe environment for people to ask questions, raise concerns and surface obstacles, knowing that the team is responsible for problem-solving and creating innovative solutions for effectively reaching the deliverables and outcomes they’ve agreed to. 

Myth No. 4: Accountable leadership means having all of the answers.

The Truth: Accountable leadership means providing direction, guidance and mentoring to help individuals come up with their own answers.

When leaders think they have all the answers, they tend to make decisions in isolation and develop a dependency on their direct reports. This approach is actually a form of control, not accountability. It doesn’t teach critical thinking to others, a skill that is necessary if they are to understand the basis of decision-making or be able to ever think for themselves without asking permission. Ultimately, this results in a bottleneck, hampering the team’s ability to achieve desired outcomes and leaving the organization vulnerable and without future leaders who can be promoted. The accountable leader’s role is not only to achieve desired outcomes but to build their team members’ competency and critical thinking so they can ultimately rise in the organization to their highest potential.