Businesses have a painfully simplistic view of employee accountability

Businesses have a painfully simplistic view of employee accountabilityModern business has an accountability fetish.

For a recent example, look at Wells Fargo. Management was worried that employees were slacking. So management set some aggressive performance expectations. And the people that didn’t meet those expectations were fired. Accountability was enforced.

It turns out, the expectations were so aggressive that thousands of employees turned to cheating. They logged fake sales that customers never agreed to. Widespread corrupt behavior ensued. All to meet expectations that were supposed to drive workforce accountability.

Sales incentives might be the most visible way that companies try to instill accountability. But that’s not the only way. All incentive programs targeted at individuals have a similar effect.

When it comes to failure, do you tend to blame people, or the environment?

Say you’re a manager. One of your employees had a goal, and failed to meet it. How do you respond? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt? Or do you come down hard on them?

Let’s zoom out a little. Say you manage hundreds of people. Say, over the course of multiple years, you have several situations where employees don’t meet their goals, big or small.

How would you typically react?

  • Would you assume the failure is a result of equal parts controllable and uncontrollable factors?
  • Would you assume the person is competent and hard-working, and that the failure is mostly a result of non-controllable factors?
  • Would you assume the person is lazy, or distracted, or unmotivated, and that the failure is mostly due to their poor performance?

My little sketch below shows these possibilities. The world isn’t black or white for any of us. Failures come in all varieties. Regardless of our default reaction, the explanations always include both controllable and uncontrollable factors. Their relative weight is the issue.

Three views of employee accountability: compassion, neutral, and conflict

Of course it’s difficult to answer this question in a vacuum. You’ll know the people you’re managing. You’ll have an existing judgment of their capability. You’ll have your own expertise and experience. You’ll have a hunch, given the situational details, of what the likely explanation is.

The challenge of this question is abstracting beyond these very important details. Even though it’s a question about the assumed failure of someone else, the question is really about you. If you’re forced to pick one extreme, do you tend to cut people slack, or do you tend to be skeptical of their performance?

If you cut people slack, you’re compassionate. You tend to believe, all else being equal, they’re not at fault. You assign more weight to factors outside of your team’s control.

If you’re skeptical of the performance of others, you invite more conflict. Your working assumption is, when there’s a failure, other people aren’t doing their jobs. You assign less weight to factors outside of your team’s control.

Conflict seems to be the name of today’s game

I think American businesses, on the whole, lean too much toward conflict. Yes, there are certainly scenarios where employees are lazy, distracted, or unmotivated. There are scenarios where employees are incompetent or woefully unprepared. There are scenarios where employees routinely exercise poor judgment. In these scenarios, judgment should land harshly on the employee in question. No doubt.

The problem is, the above scenarios are few and far between. It’s difficult to disentangle the actions of an employee from the environment. Take the Wells Fargo example again. The employees cheated. They opened customer accounts without permission. Then they were fired.

Did the story end there? Not even close. The root cause wasn’t a subset of rogue employees that lacked integrity. The root cause was a crappy sales incentive program combined with a permissive, amoral culture. Yes, it’s very easy to blame employees that opened fraudulent accounts. But that wasn’t the most consequential assignment of accountability. Not by a long shot.

The Wells Fargo example shows what happens when we’re too quick to drive toward conflict. The business world has an accountability fetish. Any time anything deviates from plan, we need someone to blame.

I’m not arguing against the notion of accountability. I just think our approach to accountability is way too simplistic. And we use that approach way too aggressively.

If we can lay the accountability at the feet of a single individual, great. That’s clean. If that doesn’t work, move up one level. Repeat until the situation is under control, or until your chief executive is dragged in front of Congressional committees.

Laying blame at the feet of employees aligns with rudimentary leadership models

I think the real difficulty is the relationship between accountability and leadership. Think about what any particular company actually does. Think about how it makes money. Now think about which employees actually do the work for which customers pay. Those are your front-line employees.

That’s the foundational discomfort for people in leadership. They don’t work on the front lines. They don’t do “the work”. They lead the people who do “the work”. They allocate the resources. They reconfigure the policies and procedures. But they’re not out there working.

And that’s not a problem, per se. Companies are organized this way for a reason. One challenge for leaders is that they’re measured on the performance of other people. That’s awkward. The contribution of leaders manifests in the performance of the people around them.

To know how well a leader is performing, you first have to measure the performance of other people. Then you pass that performance through a filter. If those people are doing what they’re supposed to do, and the company still isn’t getting the expected results…then the leaders are to blame.

Everyone is motivated to some degree by self-preservation. It’s natural, then, that leaders would define accountability in a way that allows most failures to settle with front line employees. The less accountability that comfortably lands at the front line, the greater potential for leadership to take the heat.

Again, take Wells Fargo as an example. Over the course of their five year fraud, accepted wisdom was that front line employees were accountable. It was only after thousands of employees were fired, and the fraud continued, that accountability slowly moved up the food chain. Now the Congressional committees are trying to pin accountability at the highest levels of Wells Fargo management. And the Wells Fargo board is slowly coming to agree.

What’s the solution? What’s the “right” approach to accountability?

I think we should take a more compassionate approach. We’re too quick to assume that failure is explained by people not doing their jobs properly. What if the default assumption was that everyone was competent, well-intentioned, and highly-motivated? What might we learn if we looked first at culture, or product quality, or internal policies?

Conflict has a more visceral fit with leadership. Conflict is visible. Conflict allows leaders to communicate their authority. Conflict drives compliance.

Compassion has a more nuanced fit with leadership. Compassion can appear weak and noncommittal. Compassion can seem like the enemy of accountability. It can look like letting people off the hook.

Too many companies choose to tell stories where failures are the result of people not doing their jobs. That story clearly failed miserably at Wells Fargo. I think there’s a lot of similar, though far less well-known, stories being told at countless companies every day. And we’re doing ourselves, our bosses, our teams, and all of our stakeholders a disservice by embracing these broken models of accountability.

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