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9.1 What Does It Mean to Be Accountable?

AccountabilityAn obligation or willingness to understand and accept responsibility for one’s actions. refers to an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. When a person accepts responsibility, that person is committed to generating positive results, what some people call “taking ownership.” Sometimes responsibility is obligated by assuming a specific role within an organization. For example, the chief financial officer of a corporation is obligated for knowing about and protecting the financial well-being of the firm. However, lots of work gets done within organizations for which the person is not obligated. For example, that same chief financial officer might demonstrate concern for the natural environment even though he or she is not formally responsible for it.

When individuals are accountable, they understand and accept the consequences of their actions for the areas in which they assume responsibility. When roles are clear and people are held accountable, work gets done efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, constructive change and learning is possible when accountability is the norm. When roles are not clear and people are not held accountable, work does not get done properly, and learning is not possible.

In highly litigious societies, such as the United States, accountability is often hard to assign or constructive to assume since there is a lot of societal downside to being responsible and not much upside. This is particularly true for organizational actions whereby an individual does not have full control over the outcomes. For example, individuals are often eager to serve on a board of directors as it is a prestigious position that can lead to new learning and an expanded network with other elites. However, board members are often quick to disavow responsibility for many organizational dysfunctions when class action lawsuits get filed. Avoidance of accountability is not only bad for society; but it is also devastating for organizations. And since accountability can be the container in which organizations change occurs, it is essential to organizational capacity for change.