3 Levels of Accountability in Work and Life

Three levels of responsibility and accountability come into play each day: personal, interpersonal and organizational.

Leadership consultants John Blakey and Ian Day offer the following pyramid in Challenging Coaching: Going Beyond Traditional Coaching to Face the FACTS (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012):

  1. Level 1 accountability focuses on personal actions, learning and engagement. How do you hold yourself accountable? Which values, ambitions and goals drive you toward action?
  2. In Level 2 accountability, more than one person is involved: a partnership, coaching or managerial relationship, business unit or team. Participants set common goals and agree to complete them together through shared responsibility, work and accountability.
  3. Level 3 accountability includes stakeholders within a wider system: the business organization, department or division, other staff, customers, suppliers, shareholders and the public at large. Accountability measures may include written and unwritten mission statements, ethical standards and cultural norms.

Level 3 is where responsibility and accountability often break down, with a lack of clarity or expectations or blurred lines of reportability. Responsibility may be passed around and neglected within the wider system.

As for Level 2, some managerial and coaching relationships overemphasize personal behaviors without sufficiently linking them to the big picture and business results. I’ve especially found this true in the work I do coaching executives. Beginning with having and articulating explicit expectations. Personal accountability (Level 1) must work in concert with Level 2 and Level 3 for sustainable success. Leaders require skill at all three levels to steer their corporate ships.

Accountability Requires Feedback

True accountability cannot exist without feedback and acknowledgement —areas in which most organizations have weaknesses.

“If you overlook the misbehavior of the few, you will lose the respect of the
many. And if you avoid the truth about poor performance in order to keep your employees from being hurt, you end up hurting them even more.”

      – Management consultant Michael Henry Cohen,

What You Accept Is What You
Teach: Setting Standards for Employee Accountability

    (Creative Health Care Management, 2006)

Unfortunately, most managers dread providing feedback, which seems to have such a negative connotation in our society. No matter how many negative comments are offset with positive ones, recipients always seem to obsess over perceived slights. This tendency is actually physiological: Our brains are wired to be biased toward negativity — a phenomenon that can undermine trust and rapport.

Needless to say, if your feedback is strictly positive, there’s no way for you to provide constructive input. On the other end of the feedback continuum, overly critical feedback will discourage employees’ efforts. Leaders need to strike the right balance.

What about in your place of business? Are expectation clear? Are people held accountable for meeting those expectations? Is feedback delivered and received?
I’d love to hear from you, leave a comment.


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