Accountability Is Not About Justice

| | Personal Leadership

The very idea of holding someone to account tends to make people bristle with apprehension and fear regardless of whether they are the one holding or the one being held to account.  We seem to have developed a belief that the purpose of holding someone to account is to make sure they know they did something wrong and/or are to blame and make sure they pay the consequences.

Holding someone to account all too often seems to be equated with bringing someone to justice in both context and practice.

However, justice and accountability are, in fact, very different.  The pursuit of justice begins after a crime has been committed.  Failing to meet a deadline, going over budget or the vast majority of failures to be accountable in the everyday operations and interactions of an organization are rarely crimes.

When we think about holding someone to account we are usually thinking about what happens after someone has failed to deliver as promised.  We all too often approach it as though we are supposed to “bring down the hammer” and deliver the consequences as if we were the judge and jury delivering a verdict.

After all, shouldn’t people “pay” for their mistakes?  Perhaps, but what about ensuring they learn from their mistakes or the missteps that led to their failure?  And how many times can failure to deliver as promised in today’s fast paced and complex world truly be blamed on a single person anyway?

What if holding someone to account is actually the process of holding them up to be the best they can be every step of the way rather than hammering them down after they fail?

The pursuit of accountability actually begins the moment two people enter into an agreement.  If any misstep or failure comes as a surprise after the fact there is work to do on how you work together.

Holding a person to account is about supporting them in being accountable so they can deliver on what they promise,  It’s about being there from the moment the agreement is made to the moment it is complete, not just showing up after the fact to keep score and deliver punishment or reward.  It is a way of being proactive for the purpose of creating a win for them, for you and ultimately for your organization.

When someone cannot or does not keep their promises consistently for whatever reason it may be time to have another conversation to determine if this  person belongs in the position they are in.  But that’s the step you take after holding them to account has failed, rather than the last act of holding someone to account.

Accountability is not about justice.  It is about working together towards both success and satisfaction for everyone involved.  And when you do fail the focus of someone being accountable is on learning from the past and dertermining what will we do next rather than figuring out who to blame so justice can be served.

Leaders hold people to account for being and doing their best.  Consider that the level of accountability demonstrated by the people with whom you work is a reflection of the effectiveness of your leadership.  How well are you doing?


Enter A Comment

Molly   |   27 November 2012   |   Reply

“Accountability is not about justice. It is about working together towards both success and satisfaction for everyone involved.” Brilliantly stated.

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2012   |   Reply

Thank you Molly! Appreciate you stopping by.

Christopher Avery   |   27 November 2012   |   Reply

Brilliant stated Susan. There’s not nearly enough clear truth written about accountability — as you have done here. Thanks.

I especially love (and agree) that you say accountability starts with an agreement (so, I say, never make any agreement — no matter how small — you don’t fully intend to keep). I also love your interpretation and admonition about “holding them up to be the best they can be every step of the way”.

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2012   |   Reply

Appreciate your kind words Christopher. Like you I think there are a lot of misleading interpretations and assumptions about accountability that keep us stuck. Shifting the prevailing context of accountability from one of blame to one of honor is essential if we want to elevate people. That’s why I developed a program called The Art of Accountability which I am looking forward to releasing again this winter online.

Robyn Stratton-Berkessel   |   28 November 2012   |   Reply

Love how you provide a meaning reframe, halfway through. Holding people to account actually means ” holding them to the best they can be every step of the way….” beautiful! Lifting people up works over pulling them down – when better is overtly expected, better is delivered!

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2012   |   Reply

It’s very “appreciative” I am thinking 🙂 Love this…”when better is overtly expected, better is delivered!”

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™   |   28 November 2012   |   Reply

Hi Susan,
You and I are on powerfully similar wavelengths this week — happily so. I do agree with the distinction you make for accountability does not have to be about “bringing down the hammer” as you say.

Here’s my post distinguishing accountability from blame regarding employee engagement:

Accountability is the profitable and honorable practice of initiative, ownership and follow-through. It is everyone contributing with full commitment, proactively seeking excellence, and working to remedy what’s broken.

Many thanks,

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2012   |   Reply

Well said Kate! It is indeed a “profitable and honorable practice”. Your post is excellent.

Georgia   |   28 November 2012   |   Reply

Susan: Brilliantly stated. I love conversations around accountability, and hold that the very first step is to hold myself accountable. As a character-based leader, we agree that holding our teammates accountable is holding them to the thought that we wish for them to be the best that they can be….

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Georgia. The most potent context for accountability is to “listen for” them to be great. I also think when holding someone to account though we need to make sure we are holding them accountable for their promises and aspirations for themselves or we run the risk of the slippery slope of holding them up to our expectations to which they may not be committed.

Al Watts   |   29 November 2012   |   Reply

You are right; many make negative associations with “accountability,” when in fact it is a very positive aspect of leadership and culture. I devote a chapter to accountability in my book “Navigating Integrity – Transforming Business As Usual Into Business At Its Best.” Integrity is largely living up to our promise – be it a brand promise, goals we commit to or values we aspire to live by; that doesn’t happen without accountability. You and your readers might enjoy my collection of quotes about accountability at http://www.integro-inc.com/Resources/Great_Quotes Thanks!

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your work with us on this very important topic Al.

Chad   |   21 January 2013   |   Reply

Very well said.

Justice works to balance the scales. Will you get or give what you deserve? Will the debt be paid? Will the wrong be made right? Progress may be hindered until justice is satisfied but justice isn’t about progress, it’s about restitution.

That’s the strength of accountability. Accountability isn’t simply about correcting bad behavior, it’s about promoting good behavior. It’s about making progress. Accountability isn’t about restoring a wrong, it’s about preventing the wrong in the first place. The essence of accountability is this, “I know you know what I know. So I give you permission to ask me if I’m doing what you know I know!”

Thanks for the article and for holding me accountable to think deeply about the words I use and the way I apply leadership principles in my own life.

Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for adding to the thinking here CHad. you make many great points.

To your point that “Accountability isn’t about restoring a wrong, it’s about preventing the wrong in the first place.” I think there is truth in that although I would suggest that ultimately accountability is about bringing a future into existence together rather than only preventing a breakdown in results or relationship.

Great to see you here Chad. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

Steve Loraine   |   22 January 2013   |   Reply

I really enjoyed this article, not least because it speaks so well to appreciative, whole ways of working with people. It also prompts me to make connections to strengths thinking and how relative ‘failure’ is often less about a lacking in the person and more about a mis-match of talents to job activities. There is also a sense, in the notion of an accountable relationship that Susan presents, that a missing piece of knowledge or skill is the real issue, which if a manager has established her/his accountability well can be easily rectified with the colleague. This is a positive notion of accountability, perhaps even one of of mutual accountability? Thanks Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

Thank you Steve. Based on your comment I am wondering whether you are a student/practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry.

Your last point about this being a “positive notion of accountability, perhaps even one of mutual accountability” is an important one from my perspective. True accountability is always based on choice which inherently honors the mutuality of an agreement. For example, following orders can be done in a context of accountability (based on a shared commitment to a common end) or a context of bondage in which there is really no choice involved (you do what you are told or suffer the consequences).

Thanks for engaging Steve!