Sunday, May 15, 2011

How Do You Define Accountability in Business?

Gerald Ferris et al, in a 2009 article mention that perhaps one of the most fundamental principles of best practice is accountability; that is holding employees answerable for their decisions, actions, and behaviour; where “organisational characteristics and job characteristics affect accountability which in turn affects employee influence tactics. Furthermore, the accountability-outcomes relationships are believed to be moderated by job characteristics, like job ambiguity,” (p.519).

The argument made by Ferris and his colleagues is that “hierarchical level influences both the degree of accountability the employee experiences, as well as the amount of ambiguity or uncertainty present in their jobs. Job ambiguity is believed to increase with increased hierarchical level, whereas the hierarchical level-accountability relationship is less clear. On the one hand, there is conventional wisdom and thought that as one occupies jobs in higher levels of the organisational hierarchy, there should be concomitant increases in accountability. An individual is more visible with more power and is held more responsible for the performance of their unit or the company as a whole. On the other hand, we see evidence of abuses in terms of CEO compensation, unethical behaviour, and so forth which has led some to actually suggest that certain types of accountability decrease with increases in hierarchical level. So, there appears to be a rationale for either a positive or a negative relationship between hierarchical level and accountability, depending on the type of accountability,” (p.520).

Also, job ambiguity is proposed to relate to accountability such that as ambiguity increases, accountability decreases. The logic here is that as ambiguity or uncertainty in the job and its outcomes are higher, certainty or clarity in performance outcomes should decrease, thus decreasing feelings of accountability.

There is an argument that job ambiguity shouldn’t exist at any level, and that the existence of any ambiguity would be a reflection of poor leadership or poor organisational culture or both. Any job ambiguity is likely to be caused by the fact that as you climb the corporate ladder, the boundaries of accountability can start to overlap, forming potentially ‘grey’ areas. However, I personally believe, that in a best practice organisation the hierarchy would formally or informally remove any grey areas that were found to directly impact optimum organisational performance.

What Ferris et al highlight, and which one might think is obvious, is that “if one knows that they are going to be evaluated by their boss, they will employ both behavioural attempts to perform well, as well as influence tactics that may sway the judgments of the evaluator,” (p.521). Yet this seems to assume that the evaluator, which would be the manager or supervisor, is going to be swayed by ‘influence tactics’ in the first place. I would expect a best practice manager to simply evaluate the outcomes in relation to the ‘brief’ and not be ‘swayed’ by behavioural influence.

Ferris et al mention that “a foundational element in organisational systems is that people in the workplace are held accountable or answerable for their decisions and actions. Yet our understanding of accountability antecedents, processes, and outcomes is woefully deficient. Our knowledge base to date has been largely drawn from laboratory experimental research in social psychology,” (p.528).

But are the right people being held accountable in organisations – are they in yours, for example. Is it clear who is accountable for what or can this change depending on whether there is a positive or negative outcome to the task?

Ferris et al conclude that, “while accountability is generally believed to be fundamental to the functioning of organizations and the practice of management - employment discrimination litigation, the demonstration of unethical behaviour, and abuses of CEO compensation suggest to us that accountability mechanisms are not automatic features of organizational systems, and must be actively implemented. It is critical that individuals be held accountable for specific job-related behaviours, and not simply be allowed to create the impression (i.e., through employee influence tactics) they are doing the right things. Goal setting systems (e.g., MBO) allow such abuses when subordinates set challenging goals (thereby creating a favourable impression on the supervisor), and supervisors subsequently fail to follow-up to ensure goals were attained,” (p.530).

The word accountability links to organisational and behavioural values, like honesty, pride, transparency, participation; and is, or should be, ingrained in the organisational culture. Otherwise accountability can become a tap that is turned on when things are going well, and turned off when they aren’t.

So, as Ferris et al found, accountability can be a word that is banded around organisations on the assumption that its meaning and importance are understood by all. Just maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to make these assumptions, regardless of the hierarchical level of the person in the organisation. In fact the direct meaning and influence of accountability should be revisited on a regular basis, ensuring the right level of accountability is being placed in the right hands within the organisation.


Ferris, G. R., Dulebohn, J. H., Frink, D. D., George-Falvy, J., Mitchell, T. R. and Matthews, L. M. (2009). Job and Organizational Characteristics, Accountability, and Employee Influence. Journal of Managerial Issues, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p.518-533.

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