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Let’s get this on the table right away. The notion that you can hold people accountable is illusional, a denial of a fundamental reality of human existence. People always choose whether to be accountable.

In organizations, the people we think we are “holding accountable” are deciding for themselves what to make of that demand. They make one of three choices:

Choosing commitment: I consistently make decisions that live out my commitment. I show up with passion, enthusiasm and energy. My motivation is intrinsic as I focus on resolving dilemmas, finding creative solutions, contributing worth and continually improving business results. I am accountable because I choose to be, not because of your authority.

Choosing compliance: My focus is on the consequences of not being seen as accountable. I do what I am told because I like you or I fear your authority. I may think that compliance, rather than commitment, is what is expected. What I am asked to do may not always make sense to me, but I don’t challenge it for fear of being labeled “uncooperative” or “not a team player.” My motivation is extrinsic, and my driving values are doing what I am told, maintaining relationships and turning in acceptable work.

Choosing the appearance of compliance: My focus is on appearing to be accountable while skating as close to the edge of non-compliance as I can. My motivation is extrinsic and my driving forces are fear, disappointment and anger. What I am asked to do often makes no sense to me, and I vent frustration by enlisting co-workers to join me in cynicism. I don’t participate in outright insubordination because I need my job, but my energies are focused on making sure people understand everything that is wrong with the workplace rather than finding solutions to problems.

In all cases, individuals choose their level of accountability.

Since the Industrial Revolution, organizations have created strategies and systems that "held others accountable" and fostered a culture of compliance. And they have been successful. But the machine-orientation of the industrial age is choking on the dust of a frenetic era marked by globalization, technology, diversity and speed. Never before in history has competition been so fierce, never before have customers demanded so much control and never before has technology changed so quickly and disruptively.

We suggest you ask yourself: "Is a business strategy based on compliance taking my organization where it needs to go to succeed in today's marketplace? What could we achieve if we fostered a culture of commitment rather than compliance?"

If commitment sounds like the better option, then choosing new strategies that focus on engagement and personal accountability are critical. When our talk about “holding others accountable” is transformed to beliefs and conversations that acknowledge the individual's freedom to choose commitment, we have taken an essential first step to make our organizations more successful. .

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