Immutable Principles Work Best When Partnered With Shared Accountability

Immutable principles without shared accountability might be nothing more than aspirational statements.

© Rasmus Ursem | Dreamstime.com - Project manager accountable or responsible for the project plan

© Rasmus Ursem | Dreamstime.com – Project manager accountable or responsible for the project plan

Shared accountability creates structure and gives direction to organisational momentum. Fourth Question leaders are committed to helping others be the very best they can be and achieve their personal goals, dreams and vision while, at the same time, working together to achieve the goals and vision of the team or organisation. Neither the personal nor the team goals and vision can successfully be achieved without shared accountability.

The last four posts on The Fourth Question site have been focused on the leadership value and power of immutable principles for a team or organisation. Immutable principles create a set of boundaries for operational practice within an organisation. They take the place of endless lists of procedures and rules. Organisations heavy with rules and procedural documentation create an environment which encourages compliance and discourages innovation and risk taking. Clear immutable principles provoke creative tensions around how things might be done differently yet still contribute to the desired organisational culture. While powerful and releasing, immutable principles are only one part of the complex leadership equation. Shared accountability is another part of this equation.

While powerful and releasing, immutable principles are only one part of the complex leadership equation.

© Mindscanner | Dreamstime.com - Word Cloud Accountability

© Mindscanner | Dreamstime.com – Word Cloud Accountability

I am using the phrase ‘shared accountability’ quite deliberately – as opposed to just saying ‘accountability’. When I hear the word accountability in the context of teams and organisations it comes with my preconceptions. These preconceptions create a picture of an externally imposed, top down accountability structure. At its best this structure is well documented and communicated, and consistently applied within the organisation. At its worst there is little in writing and the leader seems to make it up as they go along and applies consequences and dispenses rewards inconsistently. Some leaders seem to think that keeping team members unsure makes them work harder. While the first approach to accountability is the better of the two ends of the spectrum I have presented, neither will bring the best out of people.

Shared accountability seeks to build accountability into the culture of the organisation. Yes, it does need structure and it does need to be communicated well and applied consistently. At the same time it should be developed from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

Shared accountability seeks to build accountability into the culture of the organisation.

Graph illustrating Sanford's Theory

Graph illustrating Sanford’s Theory

In the mid-sixties Harvard University scholar Nevitt Sanford developed his theory of challenge and support.

Let’s use the analogy of a child learning to tie their own shoelaces to illustrate his theory. If adults always tied the shoelaces for the child the child would never learn how to tie them for themselves. On the other hand if the child was never shown how to tie their shoelaces and left completely to their own devices to learn this skill they would become very frustrated with the process. In his study of college students Nevitt concluded that where there is too much support there is no learning. Conversely, where there is too much challenge the result is frustration. A person needs a balanced amount of both support and challenge for growth and personal development to occur. Both support and challenge are given through shared accountability.

Nevitt describes a challenge as something which pushes a new learner to acquire new skills. Support, according to Nevitt, is an environment conducive to a person exploring their own identity in safe and encouraging ways.

Venn diagram illustrating Sanford's theory that growth only occurs in the overlap of support and challenge.

Venn diagram illustrating Sanford’s theory that growth only occurs in the overlap of support and challenge.

If drawn as a Venn diagram growth occurs in the overlap between support and challenge. In 1966 Sanford added a third element to his theory – readiness. Simply put, a person cannot grow until they are psychologically or physically ready to grow.

Shared accountability makes a significant contribution to developing a workplace environment with a balance of support and challenge. Ulrich and Smallwood (in Leadership Sustainability – Seven disciplines to achieve the changes great leaders know they must make ) present four areas of shared accountability for leaders which they claim will foster organisational effectiveness. They are: personal responsibility, public accountability, brand and values consistency, and holding others accountable. These are the building blocks of shared accountability. We will look at these in more depth in the next post.

 

 

 

Sources:

Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York: Wiley.

Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York: Atherton.

 

Takeaways.

  • Immutable principles without shared accountability might be nothing more than aspirational statements.
  • Shared accountability creates structure and gives direction to organisational momentum.
  • Shared accountability seeks to build accountability into the culture of the organisation.
  • Shared accountability is developed from the bottom up, not the top down.
  • Growth only occurs in the overlap between support and challenge.
  • Personal responsibility, public accountability, brand and values consistency, and holding others accountable are the building blocks of shared accountability.

 

Additional resources

Sanford’s Challenge and Support Theory

Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support

Four principles help leaders build – and accept – accountability

Leadership Sustainability – Seven disciplines to achieve the changes great leaders know they must make.