Respond when something is needed, do what you agreed to do, and accept your share of responsibility for the course of the organization, so that what needs doing gets done, nothing is overlooked and everyone does what they can to contribute toward the effectiveness and integrity of the organization.

Whenever we are part of a system (e.g. an organization, a community, family or state) the consequence of our actions or inaction will impact others in that same system for better or worse. Therefore we carry a certain amount of responsibility for the wellbeing of the system.

In particular, when we choose to become part of an organization, we enter into a transactional relationship with others, where we can expect to receive something in exchange for taking care of one or more specific needs the organization has.

The promise we make to take responsibility for things that need doing, creates a dependency between us and those who depend on the fulfillment of that promise.

Acknowledge shared accountability

The consequences of our action or inaction will affect the organization in some way, so by becoming part of an organization we are taking some responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole. Many responsibilities within an organization are hard to anticipate, are undefined and are undelegated. Therefore when members of an organization recognize that they share accountability for the organization as a whole, they are more inclined to step up and take responsibility for things when needed. Problems and opportunities are more likely to be acknowledged and dealt with and you reduce the risk of developing a culture of looking the other way, or worse, a culture of blame.

Many responsibilities are typically distributed throughout an organization by way of delegation, meaning that people take responsibility for specific work and decision making. Whenever a responsibility is delegated by one party (the delegator) to another party (the delegatee(s)), accountability for results is shared between both parties. This is because either parties’ choices and actions (or inaction) will impact results. Furthermore the delegator is accountable for their decision to delegate these responsibilities, and for their decision about whom to delegate them to.

While it’s typically productive for delegatee(s) to take the lead in deciding how to take care of their domain, regular communication between delegator and delegatee(s) provides a broader scope of perspective which in turn, supports strategic development and the effective execution of work.

When people consider themselves accountable only for those things that impact their immediate sphere of responsibility, many of the things that would require attention but have not been delegated to anyone in particular, or that appear to be someone else’s problem to solve, would get missed.

Make the hierarchy of accountability explicit

Most organizations have a hierarchy of delegation and therefore a hierarchy of accountability. This means that accountability for outcomes is distributed throughout the organization, while overall accountability for the integrity of the organization rests with whomever takes legal responsibility for that organization as a whole. In many organizations today, this generally points back up a leadership hierarchy to wherever the buck stops. However, in other contexts, like a community for example, overall accountability lies equally with everyone who is involved.

Whatever your particular organizational context, making the hierarchy of accountability explicit is useful because it reveals the relationship between [delegator] and [delegatee(s)].

Move from “holding to account” to self-accountability

The principle of accountability applies to everyone. It promotes a shift from being held to account by someone—which often leads to a culture of fear and blame—towards a culture of self-accountability where everyone acknowledges the impact of their actions and inaction on others, and on the system as a whole, and acts accordingly. In your relationships with others, it relates to making and following through on commitments you make, managing expectations, doing what you agree to and answering for when you don’t.

Create conditions that enable accountability to thrive

Merely clarifying what people can and cannot do is not enough to encourage a culture where accountability is embraced. In fact, alone, this can have the opposite effect. To increase the level of self-accountability in an organization there are various factors that can help:

  • Involvement: the more that people are able to influence decisions that affect them, the greater their sense of ownership will be, and the greater the likelihood that they will share a sense of accountability for the results (see also: The Principle of Equivalence)
  • Access to information: when people have the opportunity to find out what is going on in the organization and why certain decisions are made, they can figure out how they can best contribute to the whole and be an active and artful member of the organization (see also: The Principle of Transparency)
  • Safety to disagree: when people are free to express their opinions and learn how to listen and disagree in constructive ways, the organization can rely on a broader scope of perspectives, experiences and expertise, and people will feel more psychologically safe and in control. (see also: The Principle of Consent)

Make implicit responsibilities explicit

When responsibilities are unclear, it can lead to mistaken assumptions about who is responsible for what, double work, people crossing important boundaries, or failing to take action in response to important situations. At the same time, when clarifying responsibilities, it’s important to avoid over-constraining people because doing so limits their ability to make important decisions, innovate and act. This leads to a reduction in their willingness to accept accountability.

Too much specificity or too much ambiguity around the scope of authority people have to influence can lead to hesitation and waste. And in the worst case it can mean that important things don’t get dealt with at all.

Clarifying domains provides a way of explicitly delineating areas of responsibilities and defining where the edge to people’s autonomy lies.

Encourage self-accountability

To encourage a culture with a high level of self-accountability, do your part in creating a working environment where people voluntarily take on the following responsibilities:

  • Act within the constraints of any agreements governing domains you are responsible for, including the organization itself, teams you are part of, and roles you keep.
  • Act in accordance with any explicitly defined organizational values.
  • Be transparent and proactive in communicating with those you share accountability with, if you realize that what you agreed to is not the best course of action.
  • Find others who can help you if you discover you’re unable to take care of your responsibilities.
  • Break agreements when you are certain the benefit to the organization outweighs the cost of waiting to amend that agreement first. And take responsibility for any consequences, including following up as soon as possible with those affected.
  • Speak up if you disagree with something or think it can be improved in a worthwhile way, by raising possible objections as soon as you become aware of them.
  • Be proactive in responding to situations that could help or harm the organization, either by dealing with them yourself directly, or by finding the people who can, and letting them know.
  • Aim to give your best contribution, both through the work you are doing and in how you cooperate or directly collaborate with others.
  • Take responsibility for your ongoing learning and development, and support others to do the same.