reading between the lines
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Despite being younger (and therefore obviously less intelligent and capable) than me, I have, over the years, been rather impressed by my brother’s climb up the academic ladder. A few years ago, as a reward for talking in indecipherable sentences that would qualify for Pseud’s Corner, he was made a Professor. I like having a brother who is a professor – and am delighted that he grew a beard to make sure that everyone knew it.
I was even more pleased when, a couple of weekends ago, he mentioned in a modest way, that in his recent appraisal he had been informed that he had been promoted. He was now, to his surprise, an ‘A’ grade professor. I was unaware that you got different grades of professors but I guess it makes sense of a kind and was even more proud of him.
His promotion, it turns out, may be temporary. A few days later he got an email from the interim Vice-Chancellor of his university saying that there had been a typo… he was back to being just another ‘B’. No hint of an apology, no hint of why he had been congratulated by his Dean and no hint of any sort of accountability for the mix up.
I am going to leave my brother’s tale there but want to pick up on the point about accountability. The interim Vice-Chancellor’s note bore all the hallmarks of an organisation that has lost any sense of personal accountability and is rapidly descending into a culture of excuses, finger-pointing and denial.
Surprisingly, Accountability does not feature that often on the long list that I keep of various company’s values and yet is fundamental to culture and organisational performance. There are three important impacts a lack of personal accountability has:
- First, everyone hides. Hiding is normally done behind or within ‘the system’. With low personal accountability everything becomes the system’s fault. It is the classic case of ‘the computer says No’ – or in this case ‘it is a typo’. Process and mediocrity triumphs while customer and employee engagement plummets. At its very worst it leads to theft ‘it’s a big firm and no one will notice’.
- Secondly, innovation dries up. Those with a strong sense of accountability, and the room to show it, can bring about improvements to every area of an organisation. It requires an open mindset from the individual and the organisation, and requires active management. Conversely, in an organisation where the culture does not value accountability, even individuals with a strong sense of personal accountability will be stifled, frustrated and soon leave. Only drones will be left.
- Finally, culture turns toxic. There are few more unedifying spectacles than seeing an organisation turn in on itself. It is called politics, in-fighting, bitching and countless other things but the effect is caused by every experience being ‘someone else’s fault’. Collective endeavour ceases and teams fragment.
Accountability can be improved within organisations. As with all cultural changes it is first necessary to recognise it and make a conscious decision to do something about it. That can be the most difficult step because, ironically, the lack of accountability is probably already being blamed on someone else.
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