Tight margins and cashflow can sometimes make it hard to justify employing additional resources, yet these are not the source of the problem.
The root cause is typically an absence of true and clear accountability.
Unlike responsibility, accountability cannot be delegated. It means that even when a role holder is away for a period, they remain answerable for the relevant outcomes created in their absence. Before they go on holiday or parental leave, they must plan for the capacity and capability that will be required, and ensure that all relevant responsibilities have been appropriately delegated. If their team stops functioning or service levels drop while they are out of the business, it will not be acceptable to plead absence.
All too often, this exercise of true accountability doesn’t happen for two primary reasons.
The first is that the meanings and distinctions between accountability and responsibility are not understood. The words are used interchangeably, with the result that the only person held truly accountable in the business is ‘yours truly’.
Accountability relates to nouns and measurable outcomes and cannot be delegated.
A role holder can be accountable for health and safety, productivity, client satisfaction, gross profit, all of which are measurable. They will not lose their accountability just because they are going on holiday for a week.
Responsibility relates to verbs and evidence-based task performance and can be delegated
Role holders can be responsible themselves, or can delegate the responsibility for checking, doing, sending, reporting, analysing, and for providing evidence that these tasks have been completed. A host of responsibilities can contribute to the achievement of an outcome for which one role is ultimately accountable.
The second reason is that there is insufficient clarity about what each role in a business is accountable for, and what are the associated measures and responsibilities. This can arise because ways of working have not evolved at the same rate as the business. The systems, processes and team structures that served it well in the past have been adapted again and again to cope with circumstances, rather than being redesigned to meet the new and anticipated needs of the business. The result is a mishmash of roles and responsibilities.
In the end, as students of Karpman’s Drama Triangle* will recognise, everyone loses from this state of affairs. The underlying feelings are often ones of frustration, confusion and anxiety as no-one is quite sure where the buck stops and for what. The word in the staff canteen is that the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing.
The way forward
The way forward, to borrow directly from Dr Karpman, is to stop rescuing. Instead, show your faith in your team’s creative capacity and resourcefulness and start challenging and coaching them in order to address the dysfunctions identified above.
If you are the most senior person in the company or division, it is critical that you start with your role first.
The accountability at the top of the organisation must be clear and measurable in order to cascade similar clarity to others.
As you sharpen up the accountability and responsibility throughout your business, you will likely witness your most valuable team members rise to the challenge and relish the new found clarity and more focused interactions that result.
Others may find change harder. This too may prove to be a blessing as they respond to the reality that they are no longer in roles that make the most of their skills, knowledge and experience. Again, trust in their capability to do this and coach them to find the right way forward for them and the business.
If you are tired of plugging the gaps, it may be that the time is long overdue to review the understanding, assignment and culture of accountability in your business. However well intentioned you may be, your willingness to hold the fort may be preventing your team and your business from realising their full potential. It may also be preventing you from stepping back and taking better decisions in pursuit of the outcomes you want.