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Accountability - 28 September 2010

One of the most enduring novels of all time is Animal Farm by George Orwell. A bunch of animals craving freedom end up taking over the farm by staging a coup, evicting the farmer, and installing their own society based on seven core commandments.

But as their new independent life advances, one of them (Napoleon, the boar) becomes tyrannical. With the help of some loyal pigs and ferocious dogs, he assumes leadership over the entire farm and slowly starts to change the commandments to suit his corrupt and greedy manner. For example, “No animal shall drink alcohol” has the words “to excess” added, and “All animals are equal” has this appended: “but some animals are more equal than others”.

Napoleon subsequently breaks all seven commandments while the other animals are forced to work hard for little reward. The book is still immensely popular today because of the way it vividly mirrors human faults in real life. And the common theme running throughout the book is the obvious one – broken promises – which is also a common theme running throughout workplaces where it’s better known by its management jargon: lack of accountability.

To be accountable at work is to keep a promise and to be unaccountable is to break one. When you pay an employee a salary, there’s an implicit promise they’ll perform to your expectations.

Likewise, when you give constructive feedback, there’s usually an explicit promise they’ll improve. So when seeking to increase accountability within your team, the focus should be on instituting the five components of a promise.

Clarity of the promise: This is the degree to which employees are clear on what is expected and when it’s due. The greater their understanding, the more likely they are to deliver.

Agreement of the promise: Accountability is fuelled when employees have the freedom to opt in or opt out. In jobs where this is unrealistic, at least leave some room to negotiate.

Achievability of the promise: The lack of aptitude and the limits of time are the two biggest barriers standing in the way. Train for the first and create space for the second.

Consequences of the promise: Accountability is strengthened when employees comprehend the impact of it not being fulfilled, the benefit if it is, and the rewards they’ll get.

Review of the promise: When employees stumble on accountability, discuss it. When they excel at it, discuss it. The art of conversation is a brilliant manager’s most useful skill.

One of the best passages in Animal Farm is from Squealer, the second in charge, who says to the aggrieved animals: “Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure. On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

Well, for starters, you’d cease being comrades.

 

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