Why Accountability Is Weak in Many Organizations

November 12, 2012

What makes organizations weak? Is it a failure of good strategic planning? Are there cultural issues that preclude good performance? Are many leaders and workers failing to execute? While these issues are important, new information suggests that there may be one major issue we have often overlooked.

An Insightful Revelation

In a recent publication by Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser, the authors culled through their research since 2010 of 5,400 leaders in organizations in four continents. They found that accountability was the weakest link in organizational behavior. Nearly half, 46 percent, said they do not have sufficient accountability from managers and leaders. The two authors noted, “No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.”

The evidence is overwhelming. Leaders are letting people get away with laziness, lack of productivity, personal branding, and personal interests to the detriment of the organization. Overfield and Kaiser offer some historical reasons that might explain this counterintuitive behavior. I have added a few of my own.

Lack of Courage Among Leaders

Some leaders are simply unwilling to have the tough conversations with those in their organization. For certain, those conversations are not fun and they are thus often placed on the backburner. Anytime we confront someone with his or her deficiencies, we can be certain there will be negative emotions. So it’s just sometimes easier to take the path of the coward and do nothing.

Concern with Personal Popularity

I once worked with a leader in an organization who was very smart and well equipped for his position. His style of leadership, however, was one where he wanted to be liked and popular with those who served in his area. As a result, he gave additional vacation days beyond policy as rewards for regular and expected work. His department constantly had parties during working hours. And everyone got good reviews and raises. The leader’s first concern was his popularity. Consequently, his employees developed an entitlement mentality and resisted normal accountability. Productivity thus lagged and the leader was asked to leave.

Free Riders Carried by the Group

The organization may have a culture that encourages productive employees to cover for non-productive employees. There is a ”niceness” in the systems of the organization inhibiting productive employees from confronting the non-productive employees with their failure to carry the load. As a result, the better workers will pick up the slack for the weaker workers. Sadly, the better workers usually get frustrated with the inequities over time, and they eventually leave. The organization gets to keep the non-productive employees.

Focusing on Strengths/Neglecting Weaknesses

There has been some silly advocacy to focus only on workers’ strengths while avoiding any discussion about their weaknesses. Many leaders have moved toward that approach because it is less confrontational and more comfortable. But those in leadership positions are not there to be comfortable. They are to be leaders who are courageous and bold and forthright and honest.

A Culture That Discourages Accountability

Sometimes the overall culture of an organization discourages leaders from holding people accountable. I have seen this phenomenon, for example, in a number of churches. Staff members will not be carrying their weight. They come and go as they please. No one really knows how much they work in a given week, but many suspect that the hours are minimal. However, they get the same raises as everyone else. Their reviews are positive if they exist at all. Leaders in the organization are discouraged from dealing with the situation, because any type of confrontation would be perceived as “unchristian.”

But the Bible is clear on such behavior. The Apostle Paul said without equivocation in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: ‘If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat’” (HCSB). I think if we enforced that level of accountability in our organizations, productivity would move to unprecedented heights.

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6 Comments

  • Thom Rainer says on

    John –
    You seem to miss that I wrote about the fallacy of focusing on strengths alone. I certainly agree that recognizing gifts and strengths is key to the process of accountability — but not to the neglect of weaknesses and challenges. The Apostle Paul certainly told us to be informed about spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1). But he also gave us many admonitions to address our weaknesses, for example holding on to anger for a protracted period of time (Eph. 4:26).

  • John Patton says on

    “There has been some silly advocacy to focus only on workers’ strengths while avoiding any discussion about their weaknesses.”
    Discovering and using strengths as the primary means to accomplish the work at hand does not seem to be silly. The weaknesses may be complimented better with others that have those as strengths. This idea seems to be consistent with the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. The stengths based framework also includes an understanding of self-improvement.
    Focusing on strengths does not neglect the work (which is the real issue), it allows you to use your best talents to accomplish the work and to recognize the giftedness of others and the need for others to accomplish the work.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Jason –
    David offers good advice. I would add that the church culture determines much of what can take place towards accountability.
    When I was a pastor, I requested “360” reviews by those on staff and by the personnel committee to whom I was accountable. In my current role at LifeWay, I am evaluated by my direct reports and by the officers of our board. The board officers also see the evaluations of me by my direct reports.

  • Jason,
    I teach leadership at one of our Baptist colleges and I teach the students two things: 1. develop good standards and the policies to guide those standards in your staff manuals and 2. everyone gets evaluated, even the pastor. Of course this won’t be popular and each church will have to determine who does that evaluation, but I think it is a display of humility and way to build better trust if the pastor is willing to be evaluated also.

  • Steve Drake says on

    Thanks so much for this timely and illuminating post. No doubt many (including yours truly) can benefit significantly from this information. It helps not only in clarifying what supervisors should require from those whom they supervise, but also what should be expected from us by those who hold us accountable (not the least of whom is God, Himself). This post helps to reset the template.

  • Great insight. Any suggestions on how a pastor can implement this among the staff? Also, should the staff have an opportunity to evaluate the pastor?