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Responsibility not Accountability

When we see, hear or even touch a word, a signal travels to our amygdala where the word is processed. Some words trigger an emotional response. One such word for me is accountability. It didn't used to cause an emotional response. It is a very common word in the business lexicon. However, over the years, accountability has become associated with blame. Now, when I hear someone use the word accountability. I get nervous, I start to get a little twitchy. Am I observing a finger pointer, someone who likes to play the blame game? Someone who is perfectly willing to delegate so long as "you don't mess up". This leadership style belongs in a Sopranos episode. You can't manage through fear. Not in today's collaborative environments. One we way we change attitudes is by starting with changing the language we use. What if we started talking less about word accountability and more about responsibility.

But, we need to take it one step farther. We can't just start talking about being responsible. Christopher Avery explains it in The Responsibility Process: Unlocking Your Natural Ability to Live and Lead with Power:

Being responsible means being good and acceptable in the eyes of another. It means receiving approval. It means conforming to expectations. By definition, being responsible relies on feelings of shame and obligation, and in having ready-made answers of denial, blame and justification. No, clearly being responsible is not enough we need to go a step beyond. Taking responsibility is vastly different. It means to see yourself as a powerful causal force for your experience of life. You, through your choices and action or inaction, can be seen as the primary cause for your: happiness of unhappiness, success or lack of success, performance or lack of performance ...

Holding people accountable isn't effective. You can't manage through fear. We need to start fostering psychological safety. A very simple first step towards creating an environment where we all take collective responsibility is to retire the word accountability. Couple that with shifting the focus away from the individual and more onto teams that take collective responsibility and you will have built the foundation for lasting success.


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