Further to the line of thinking about accountability and responsibility, I have been musing on the emotional reaction we often have toward words. Over a period of several months I had the opportunity to speak with employees in several different companies what was the first word they thought of when they heard the word accountability? What I was told was very enlightening.
Firstly, managers loved the word ‘accountability’, while the employees who reported to them almost universally disliked the word. This is not all that surprising in that the managers were usually thinking of how they can measure the performance of the people reporting to them. The direct reports were just being consistent with pretty normal reactions to performance management. From a neuroscientific point of view, being measured on one’s performance by someone else is a highly threatening situation that makes most people feel nervous, worried, and even sick to their stomachs. We often have a visceral reaction to the thought of our performance, and often by extension, ourselves being measured and/or rated. We often translate that to who we are as human beings being measured – and possibly found to be lacking. It does then make one wonder how those same managers who are so in favour of accountability might feel if it were to be applied in the same way to them.
Managers and Employees Differ on Accountability
When we examine the word they used to describe accountability the managers used positive or neutral words such as responsibility, success, performance, achievement, etc. The pattern of positive words was there, while there was quite a lot of variation in the actual choice of words. With the direct reports, on the other hand, three groupings emerged. One group, like the managers used a variety of words such as risk, failure, underachievement, etc. The other two groups chose two words consistently. One group chose consequences and the last group chose punishment. The consequence group being able to choose only one word almost universally saw the consequences as negative. It was the punishment group, which was the largest of the three groups that give the pause for consideration.
This follows directly with employee’s general reaction to performance management. It is often a punishing experience. Employees spoke further of feeling trapped, having no choice but to get the job done. After all, there is an expectation for employees to do jobs they are assigned – everyone knows and accepts this. The burden that the word accountability places on how they feel about the task changes the reaction from one of acceptance to one of fear, concern and negativity, and again neuroscience informs us that when people feel threatened, go into that state of fight or flight, their cognitive abilities start to shut down. Their physical abilities rise, getting ready to run or defend themselves, but analysing, making decisions, drawing conclusions, remembering – general cognitive functions, diminish.
This reaction is not what most managers want. The managers have a responsibility to the organization and their superiors to report on the performance of their direct reports and anything that makes that job easier is welcome. There needs to be a pathway between that need to report and the interest in keeping employees functioning at their best. This is where using accountability in the positive sense, can be helpful.
Accountability is an important word to have in one’s lexicon. In my next blog on accountability I will provide an exercise that will involve your employees and help you use accountability in a positive way to improve this dilemma.