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There’s been a great deal of talk about accountability and responsibility lately. As we’ve progressed through this pandemic the notions of being accountable and responsible are increasingly becoming part of the everyday conversation. In the current climate the terms are almost interchangeable. We see a wide variety of public commentary where those that are responsible for certain situations are also held accountable. We often hear leaders of organisations, systems or teams publicly announce that they are accountable for a result and will take full responsibility. Whilst this is admirable, there are slight but subtle differences between accountability and responsibility and I believe as leaders we need to understand this difference in order to clearly identify what it is that motivates those we lead to achieve the results we are looking for.
When we embark on the next iteration of a project or plan it is usually supported by us reviewing results and planning to accelerate what is successful and revising and refining areas that need improvement. This process is typically underpinned by some form of mechanism for measuring our impact in effect holding us accountable for the implementation of our plan. It can be here though where the term accountability runs the risk of changing the narrative. It’s almost like the term ‘accountability’ is being used to apply a consequential monitoring system. The inference that surrounds the discussion about accountability can make it seem like a punitive approach. In this instance accountability seems to remove the decision making processes and restricts the scope of a plan to a set of predetermined boundaries with a lineal path for achieving the outcome. It almost feels like an imposed rule. In short there’s no ownership. We know that as leaders those we lead are more encouraged to drive improvement when they feel they have been part of the planning and part of the design and can clearly see how their efforts will assist in achieving the desired outcome.
We’ve been conditioned to think of accountability as a compliance mechanism to get us to fulfil the demands of those that have authority over us. Through this lens accountability is almost like reliability where the organisation is held accountable for a particular result. Its process driven, fill the bucket with 500 beans, not 499, increase by 10% not 9%. In contrast responsibility is viewed very differently. When we think of responsibility there is a suggestion that it has a greater underlying purpose. Being responsible plays to the greater good, there’s a humanness to responsibility that can be perceived to be lacking in accountability. When we develop a mindset of personal responsibility my view would be that we are holding ourselves accountable. It may sound a little like semantics but I think the mindset of personal responsibility means that we do what we are supposed to do because we care about the result whereas when we achieve through overarching accountability there is a different and potentially less powerful motivation. With accountability there is a perception that we achieve because someone else has told us too. This slight shift almost abdicates our moral purpose and as leaders it’s understanding our purpose that really drives momentum and gets a shift in results. Taking personal responsibility for our choices and owning the role we play in an initiative is critical if we are to achieve successful outcomes.
By having those in our teams choosing to take responsibility we invite people to bring their expertise, skills and experience to the table. We encourage personal mastery, narrowing in on the individual skills and sharing expertise. In doing so we have the ability to identify and guide an individual’s point of implementation which will ultimately assist in driving accountability across our teams. Each individual knows exactly where their touch point is, what is expected and how it contributes to the overall picture. When people own their own choices there is an opportunity for real action. Taking responsibility is a conscious choice. Making that choice and understanding our purpose allows us to leverage the strong emotional attachment that is created when we have skin in the game.
Unlike accountability where feedback usually occurs at the conclusion of an initiative, responsibility allows for ongoing feedback generating refinement and continuous improvement. You know if you are personally on track, discussing your role and your progress with colleagues should become a regular part of the process. Having open and honest conversations about your individual progress towards the achievement of your role in the plan is a vital part of overall achievement. I spoke to a colleague recently about the concept of giving it your best shot. She argues that it’s not your best shot we want, it’s the ability to make the next one better than that and the next even better that that. This idea that as individuals we should always be striving to improve, seeking feedback on individual performance and refining our efforts where possible is at the heart of personal responsibility. You may be able to explain away results to others but you can’t hide the truth from yourself. Working towards all members of our team taking personal responsibility and supporting them to meet it will strengthen our systems and maintain momentum.
Don’t get me wrong we need accountability. As leaders we are ultimately accountable for the success of our plans. Without personal responsibility though we can rationalise accountability away claiming that it’s up to others to meet the targets. Personal responsibility places the onus firmly on us to make it happen. Each individual has to keep on top of their progress in an initiative making them an active participant in its success and not a passive bystander in its failure. This ensures that at every level there are people working towards putting all pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately enhancing the opportunity to reach the goal. We are all accountable, but if you want to amplify results identify and mobilise the personal responsibility that underpins it all. I believe we get more from our team when results come from an intrinsic motivation that is more aligned with our sense of responsibility than a numerical value developed through an accountability lens. Being personally invested brings with it a very different mindset.
As educators we aim to make a positive impact on the lives of students. This is an enormous responsibility. We’re not making chocolate biscuits, if one falls off the production line we can’t just sweep it up and ice the next one. Parents don’t have a spare at home for us to have another crack at. We build great people, that’s our product. As a leader I certainly have an eye of the accountability mechanism I’m working towards but it’s the enormity of the personal responsibility I have to educate students that weighs heavily on me. As we transition from this pandemic accountability has to be strong. We have to intensify our efforts. If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that we can do things differently, we have the capability and agility to pivot and achieve the impossible. It has dramatically transformed the way we work, the way we interact and the way we engage in our contexts. As we move forward all of us have to think deeply about the personal responsibility we have in our contexts. What is our individual role? How can we strive every day to ensure we are meeting it? How do we hold ourselves accountable? Our collective efforts are needed like never before. We can be divided by issues of accountability or united by purpose, one fuelled by individual responsibility. As I’ve said, I believe we are comfortable with accountability. The challenge we face is ensuring all members of our team fulfil their personal responsibility as this is the foundation for achieving results