In the UK, responding to the public outrage that no one was individually held accountable for the financial crisis that ruined lives and businesses alike, yesterday marked the beginning of the new “Senior Management Regime” (SMR). Under these provisions senior managers will be held personally responsible for misdeeds of their firms. They are expected to prevent, or at the very least document, they did all they could to prevent misdeeds by their firm. Not surprisingly we have already seen a number of attempts to elude accountability (“juniorizing” a position among the early favorites.) It is an interesting contrast to the usual clamor we hear about the critical role the chief executive played in the success of the company (see the astounding increases in executive compensation as a case in point.) When the news is good, the line seeking credit is long and visible. In the face of more troubling outcomes nary a soul is to be found.
The financial services in the UK isn’t the only example among us at present. The recent academy awards ceremony taught us two things: 1) when trouble emerges, using humor to keep the discomfort suppressed is a useful technique to put off any real work – particularly with an issue as gut-wrenching as institutional racism; 2) One reason problems persist in complex systems is the diffusion of accountability. Is the Academy of Motion Pictures a racially biased institution or is the movie industry designed to serve a buying public with a preference for white stories and actors? By either definition, it will be difficult to pinpoint the people culpable for the outcomes we find disappointing.
Accountability is thought to be important, even critical. Experts cite the need for it, stakeholders demand it. Why then do we see such elaborate efforts to elude it? Fear of loss mostly. Take our friends in the UK, when is the last time you saw people trying to de-emphasize the importance of their own positions? In this case, the danger is real and entails loss of financial security and personal freedom. In the academy it is more likely to be the arrogance of power – the Academy membership holding on to some image of itself that they hope will survive despite the dynamic and evolving world in which they live. (For another equally anachronistic example see the baseball writers who vote on baseball’s Hall of Fame inductees.)
So how does accountability show up where you live and work? What are people willing to be “on the line” for? And how about you? If the rules facing executives in the UK were imposed on you and your workplace, would you document every communication to your team to make sure you left a trail?
Or would you do something else with the same amount of effort to let people know what you want to be held accountable to be or do?
Jeff Lawrence is Managing Director at Organizational Agility Advisors, a firm specializing in leadership development and organizational agility. To read more about this and other leadership challenges in the world today, check out their website at www.orgagilityadvisors.com