Accountability is built on a foundation of mutually-defined commitments

Mutual commitment trumps accountability.

These days, we hear a lot about the need for accountability. What we don’t hear as much about is what lies at the foundation of accountability: mutually-defined commitments.

Years ago, as an onsite OD consultant, I supported the head of an R&D division who often complained about how difficult it was for him to hold his people accountabile for their commitments. Although in theory the company had a “bottom-up/top-down” objective-setting process, he noted that when his objectives cascaded down to him he felt like he had no choice but to commit to those objectives, and he expected his reports and their teams to do the same.

As we explored this assumption more deeply, we came to the conclusion that the commitments people were making to him were based on ritual rather than rigor. People made commitments because they felt they had to, but as soon as they were out of his sight they went right back to doing what they thought was actually possible.

To solidify the organization’s commitment and accountability culture, we introduced a dialogic commitment-making process, in which people were not required to commit to an objective until they had had a chance to have an open discussion about whether they thought it was really possible and why or why not they thought so.

Once they had been involved in the objective-setting process as agents rather than tools, his people tended to take ownership for achieving more aggressive goals than they had under the previous system.

Replacing obedience rituals with mutual dialog yielded real commitment and higher actual output.

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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