The Accountability Problem

To a considerable degree many have denied or ignored the fact that the realm of the invisible underlies the visibly observable and measurable world. As a consequence there is an inordinate amount of importance placed on tangible results. So much so that many use results to get people to provide more results. Accountability is what it is all about.  It changes relationships between the leader and the led and between the worker and the work.


Holding people accountable for results uses fear of reprimand to get them to do what you want.  If you do that you will get this—implied also is if you don’t you will get what you don’t want—characterizes the relationship between leader and led. In short the leader is there to administer pain and pleasure.  This is nothing more than the use of force to cause others to do what you wish them to do—what Herzberg has referred to as KITA, a psychological a kick-in-the-ass.


Why do many managers do this?  Half-jokingly Herzberg said people do this because a physical kick could cause bodily harm!  Likely they do it because they are clueless about human nature and/or it is all they that they know—it is all they have seen and heard done.


Treating people as objects or as if they were laboratory animals—as if they were less than human—is at least dishonoring and at most criminal.  What gives those in management the license to do this?  Legitimate authority by virtue of one’s position in the hierarchy of an organization provides the means.  However it is unfortunate that because it takes place within the corporate realm—where principles of justice and democracy have no claim—it is what keeps them from being arrested for committing a crime against humanity.


Getting Results

Holding people accountable as your motivation tool necessarily means using management’s 3-R’s—results, ranking and reward.  You set numerical goals, announce that a reward will be given to the top result-getter, measure results relative to the goal, rank order the people you mange and distribute the rewards and punishments accordingly. Clearly this approach doesn’t require knowing anything about the work or about the people doing the work.  All that is required is the ability to count, rank and understand grade-school arithmetic.


Proponents of this approach often use the argument that they are just motivating people to uphold their responsibility to the task at hand.  Really aren’t people simply responsible for the work they are hired to do!  Of course they are, but by applying force you get people to move—there is no question about that—but movement is not motivation.  I could push my dog out the door or bribe her with a doggie treat—either approach is a form of KITA, one physical the other non-physical.  The result is that she moves from inside to outside, yet she wasn’t motivated to do so.  It was I who was motivated to get her out the door, so I forced her out.


The proponents’ argument continues claiming, but it gets the job done and that is all that matters!  So results are all that matter, eh!  This is not a situation of the ends justifies the means or of no-harm-no-foul!  Since reward and punishment are opposite sides of the same coin, you can’t use one without at the same time using the other—not getting a reward is punishment. Using force—euphemistically accountability—is a lot easier though clearly not lastingly effective.


Importance of Meaning

Herzberg’s answer to the question how do you motivate others is “give them something motivating to do.”  Okay so what’s motivating to others? First we must understand that motivation emerges from meaning.  When an activity is meaningful to us we are energized to engage in that activity.  Consequently if what you want others to do is so important then it seems logical that you would enable them to understand the importance of it all?  Don’t you believe that if they understood as you do they’d see the meaning in it all?


Moreover meaning is contextual.  We all know that when things are taken out of context—when things are placed in a different framework—they lose their intended meaning and thus the very nature of the thing changes.  Accordingly, when we place one’s job in a reward-punishment context we unavoidably change the very meaning of the work itself.  The relationship to the work changes!  The value of the work now lies in the reward gained or punishment avoided, and not in the value of the activity in and of itself.


Quality Work is Meaningful

The essence of quality is inextricably connected to meaning.  However because of an emphasis on numerical goals, people no longer strive to produce quality they strive to hit the number.  The work itself is pointless if it was not for the reward it afforded; and customers are mere instruments to this end.  We seek not to engage our very being in our work and to delight customers but rather to gain the reward, the prize, the profit.


In education, teachers and administrators no longer seek to facilitate learning, as they’ve been commanded to turn their attention to students passing the test or graduating.  In the education system management’s 3-Rs of results-rate-reward render education’s 3-Rs inconsequential to the real metrics of test scores and graduation rates. So delivering results, not facilitating learning, is what matters.


Meaningful Work

Doing meaningful work contributes to our wellbeing and to the wellbeing of those who are touched by our work.  Yet unfortunately meaning has been expunged from our activities and with it so too has intrinsic motivation. It is not that the absence of meaning leaves us in a neutral situation; meaninglessness brings about low-level energy—depression, apathy, and fear—which is clearly detrimental.  Accordingly, doing meaningless work leads us to see life—one’s own and others’—as empty and pointless.  No wonder we don’t care about our work or about our self for that matter!


Since (human) achievement requires intrinsic motivation, then achievement is either enabled or disabled by the context within which the work is to occur.   So we must attend to ensuring that the context of the work we offer others is both enabling and ennobling.


So when we hear people utter we need to make (other) people accountable for results we should know that it is they who haven’t a clue of what to do for improvement.


29 thoughts on “The Accountability Problem

  1. In much of the above post I feel in many respects you are asking some very important questions of human nature. I note you mention Herzberg and I am surprised you do not mention Maslow. (I came across these guys when I was doing my engineering degree many years ago)

    I do not wish to ignore the important questions you ask but I jump to your final sections on meaningful work.

    What concerns me is the question of meaningful work ? and what is and what is not meaningful work.

    I believe meaningful work leads to individual fulfillment and contentment. The lack of fulfillment through work is leading to many social ills including, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and the break down of society as a whole.

    In the UK and Europe, (I can not comment on the US situation, other than what I hear ) there seems to be an effort to create jobs at any cost.

    These jobs are generally created by the government creating tiers of regulation and legislation.

    E.g if you engage in manufacturing and particularly food production, your factory or farm will be subject to inspection and scrutiny by many different bodies. The question is what value is being added and what contentment or fullfillment one gets by being engaged in such work.

    Other examples are regulations concerning domestic trash disposal, where the contents of your trash can be expect to be inspected perhaps at least once a month to ensure that the house hold is recycling properly.

    Similarly in the UK one of the recent reorganizations of then UK National Health Service, tens of thousands of artificial administrative type jobs have been created,

    The generation of these jobs would be fine and noble except no value seems to have created for individuals or society as whole, more likely a great loss is being created. There is a massive lack of fulfilment and contentment which is spoiling society.

    The individuals who perform these task do economically benefit but there is a big down side to it, they suffer psychologically, intellectually they know they are not creating anything of value. There work is not fulfilling.

    If you are a builder or an engineer, generally you create something tangible for all to see. A farmer or farm worker generally takes fulfillment from seeing a fine crop growing or from a healthy herd of cattle.

    If you are an artist or a writer, one also creates something that people can you view and ponder intellectually, again obvious fulfillment

    At lower levels of work, there is even fulfillment for the street cleaner or trash collector, or the post man in that they know their jobs and work are essential to the functioning of society.

    In the UK and Europe there is also political consensus that poverty can be eliminated by tax and spend and indeed, and around 10% of people now live off public handouts with out working at all. I ask what contentment or fulfillment do these benefit recipients get. Are we killing them with kindness.

    I now live in South East Asia and I am challenged frequently by my Asian Friends who ask if it is moral to pay people to not work. Their argument is that necessity is the mother of invention and if you remove necessity then you remove the motivation to find work and the opportunity for contentment and fulfillment I find some how this argument fits with what I remember of Maslow.

    The challenge we face in Western Society is to allow the generation of real fullfilling jobs.

    In western business, we have a dilemma in that perhaps 25% of the jobs which exist in a business are there only because of some goverment regulation.

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