Shared Responsibility and Accountability – A Key to Success or Disaster?

In almost twenty years of my business career, I can’t remember a case when someone was fired for a mistake they made. Not only because some of the companies that I worked for thought that people should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, but more often due to fact that it was never clear whose mistake it was. 

I must say, I have always worked in fairly big, multinational organizations, usually in some kind of a matrix structure. Probably things are different in smaller companies – especially the ones with owners being very keen on maximizing the performance and revenues for themselves in a very short period. 

But, why are people fired from multinationals? Because they very often are. It might be due to a long-lasting underperformance. Mistakes are repeated over and over and over again. But if you reach a certain level in the structure: this can last for years. I know some examples where people were heavily underperforming for many years before they were dismissed. Or it happens because decision-makers simply do not appreciate some employees very much, and during re-organizations, they don’t see them anymore as a part of their teams. This can be also subjective and sometimes personal. Because everything human-related is always at least a bit subjective and personal. 

I’m very much a lone rider. It’s in my nature. Writing, being my primary choice (unfortunately not a career as well) is a lonely job. But this doesn’t mean that I can’t be a team player. I had to learn a lot about being a good team player, and I have probably made a lot of mistakes. But still, today – I don’t like when teamwork is a cover for the lack of accountability, responsibility, and courage of single members. Especially the team leaders. 

In matrix structures that we can all experience if we are working for big corporations, sometimes the teamwork is equaled to – no one’s accountability. And it goes across all layers. 

CEO of the company usually has a supervisory board and sometimes also an advisory board. Also, very often CEO is hiring various consultancies – especially in difficult situations, major changes, and turn arounds. Unfortunately, I have seen many times that those consultants do not bring anything to the game apart from taking a shared responsibility with a CEO for a huge fee that the company is paying. Consultants always come with a disclaimer. They always ask you to sign that they are not responsible for anything. The very bizarre premise, I must admit, but for many years considered as totally normal.

Of course, I understand that word consultant means that someone is consulting you and not making decisions instead of you. And, I understand that at the bottom line, a consultancy should not survive on the market if they do a bad job. Word of mouth and their references should be their end goal. But, since most of the big companies are using consultancies with big names just to justify decisions in front of the shareholders and to split the responsibility – the final result is not influencing the reputation of the well-known consultancy firms.

So, quite strange but also quite convenient: you hire someone to share the responsibility, they say in the contract that they are not taking any responsibility, you present to your shareholders that you have hired best in class consultants, so they feel contented and they don’t feel responsible for your decisions, and you all get quite a lot of money for that. If things go well, you get A LOT of money. If they don’t go well – everyone is still getting quite some money. We have seen that in many banks, for example, which was collapsing due to very bad decisions of their boards and management teams, but CEO was still getting a huge bonus at the end of the year. 

Let’s take a look at the level or few levels below this highly paid and highly privileged structure. In middle management, the most popular word of recent years is – alignment. In my previous company, this was by far the most used word. Which is strange because we were not in the construction or machinery business. This means that as many as possible people in the company structure should be involved in a certain project. Some of them will have a real role to play. Some of them will have an advisory role. Some of them will have no role to play at all. But, in many cases, they will feel obliged to contribute, because they are invited to participate. I guess I don’t have to underline how many unnecessary and irrelevant opinions and comments this creates. If you pack this well, you can call it collaboration. And, don’t get me wrong – collaboration is needed and in many projects, it is relevant to include more people and to have expertise from several departments of the company. That’s normal. But in many cases, project leaders like to include more people just to be able to split the responsibility and guilt in case that something goes wrong. “I was aligned with IT on this…”, “Public affairs were informed…”, “Marketing was present at the workshop…”.

When you are part of the middle management, quite fast it becomes clear for you if you will have or not the chance to progress further toward the top. If you will not have that chance, then your only goal is to survive as long as possible. To keep your good salary and a good bonus. And then, your goal is not to have too much responsibility because that is increasing your chance for mistakes. And then, you feel safe because you have this wrong perception that mistake will cost you a privileged position. But, actually, the fact that you are making yourself irrelevant by endlessly sharing responsibility and accountability with others – will eventually make you redundant in the first round of cost cuts or restructuring. My nature and character do not allow me to become irrelevant. Sometimes I would love that. Because it’s comfy and warm and you can feel happy. Less stressed and stretched. That’s probably the reason why I had the break between two jobs only when I explicitly asked to get 3 months before my new contract starts. 

If we go further down the organization things become even more serious and worrying. I don’t know if it’s politicly correct to say “down the organization” – but I’m not talking about NGOs here, so yes – there is up and there is down in the corporation. Many job descriptions are simplified in recent years. This is because every company want’s to measure the contribution of individuals and departments.

Sometimes, to measure contribution and success, you need very simple KPIs. And it would be very good and convenient if one employee or department does not have a very complex role that would not be easy to measure. Also, to supervise people with more complex roles, you need quite good and skilled supervisors. Good supervisors are not easy to find or to develop. So, it’s much more convenient to reduce the roles and responsibilities of people to the very basic level, so that they can be easily trained, easily monitored, measured, and rewarded. And most of the people do not oppose that. I guess it’s in human nature to say yes if someone gives you less responsibility for the same amount of money. Instead of thinking and planning, you just have to do it. For a while, you feel quite good. You are not taking your work home, you get the feeling of accomplishment because you did good in your very basic tasks. What you don’t know at that particular moment that few years down the road, your role will be replaced with a cheaper service center in the 3rd world country or with an automatized software and/or robot.

We never had so many highly educated people in developed countries, and they never did so ridiculous jobs, like today. I’m always teaching my young team members that they should fight for complexity and more challenging tasks even if those tasks are overwhelming at that particular moment. But, unfortunately, many of them choose to perform simple tasks well, thinking that the successful accomplishment of tasks with less accountability will give them a good position in the company because they did not fail. Big mistake. At the end of the day, every company needs a critical percentage of people to move things forward. And they are not the ones who are scared of accountability. 

I always admired editors-in-chief during the times when this was a real job. Before online statistics and brutal politics took the dignity from journalism. In my native language, the editor-in-chief was called “main and responsible editor”. And best ones were fully responsible for all the content of their publications. They knew that they can’t say: this was aligned with this or that department. What was in their paper was their responsibility from the main page to the last cover. And they enjoyed it. 

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