ggm Nonprofit Consulting LLC


Thoughts On

Leadership and Management

Balancing Accountability and Learning

There’s no either/or with Accountability and Learning—both are essential to organizational success.  We talk about these two so often that it’s easy to imagine they fit easily together.  In fact, incorporating both into your organizational culture can be extremely difficult.  What explains the tension between Accountability and Learning?  Why do attitudes and behaviors that support one tend to undermine the other?  Finding the right balance for each organization between accountability and learning requires that managers understand these dynamics.  

Accountability and Learning Orientations

Both accountability and learning rely on expectations and measurement.  Expectations should be established in advance of the events or activities.  They provide a shared context for both accountability and learning.  Measurement, whether qualitative or quantitative, is needed to assess the extent to which expectations were met.  The purpose behind that assessment is where accountability and learning go their separate ways.

At it’s most basic, accountability is about reckoning with the past.  “What happened?”  The promise of accountability is that there will be consequences—good or bad, substantive or symbolic—that flow from the answer to that question.  Accountability is meant to align our personal incentives—how we are rewarded or punished and how we are perceived by our coworkers—with the quality of our work, judged by how others experience it.

The underlying premise of accountability is control.  Accountability is legitimate—fair—only so far as it applies to those activities over which we have control.  We are normally presumed to have control over the work of our subordinates, but rarely over that of our peers, even when we are running a project. 

Learning approaches both of these aspects entirely differently.  It focuses us on the future rather than the past and, at least implicitly, it eschews control to embrace the more flexible notion of influence.

The essential question for learning is how are we going to apply what we learned about what happened to doing better in the future.  Expectations and measurement are important to the extent that they provide information useful in shaping future behavior.  Learning requires going beyond what the measurements are—the normal stopping point of accountability—to what they mean.

Similarly, the assumption of control essential to legitimizing accountability isn’t terribly relevant in a learning context.  Control is seen in more relativist terms and can be plotted on a scale of influence—I tend to have an extremely high level of influence over my own conduct (say, showing up to work) and relatively little influence over a client (who may decide not to show up for an appointment).  The important question for learning is, “What could we do to better influence our results?”  The universe of answers is not limited to choices or actions that were directly under our control.  

Common Issues with Accountability and Learning

The tensions between learning and accountability play out in numerous ways. Just a few examples: 

  • One of the most common complaints I hear from EDs is that their staff are too siloed.  Not coincidentally, many of these EDs are focused on maintaining accountability.  Silos may be counterproductive for an organization but they often make perfect sense for the individuals involved who feel highly answerable for their performance. Silos enable staff members to control their environments, usually defining what they will and won’t do, and dictating how others may interact with them.  Decision-making, roles and responsibilities are well-defined, supporting greater accountability.  

  •  An emphasis on accountability increases the risk of decision-making, particularly for more junior staff.  Too often, decisions are evaluated by their results and impact, even though these are often driven by contingencies or subsequent events that were not knowable at the time the decision was made.  Organizations that focus on accountability may find that decision-making gets pushed up, creating bottlenecks and other challenges.

  •  Learning cultures offer their own challenges.  They may be more dynamic or creative, but often that translates to a lack of clarity around direction and decision-making. Less rooted to consistent implementation of agreed-upon plans, learning environments may have trouble delivering the consistent results over time valued by funders, constituents and other stakeholders.  While some staff will thrive in learning cultures, others who desire more structure may underperform and find hiding relatively easy. 

  •  Accountability cultures depend on actual and perceived fairness.  Staff must believe both that work quality is assessed without bias and that other factors (who likes who, race, seniority, age, gender, etc.) are not relevant to a person’s success or failure.  This tends to lead to four interrelated challenges:

    • Fairness requires a lot of process.  Procedural fairness is often used as a proxy for substantive fairness.  Procedural fairness tends to be resource intensive and most organizations hesitate (appropriately) to prioritize it against programmatic needs.

    • Procedural fairness requires consistency among managers.  This requires experienced managers at relatively junior levels, substantial training and coaching, and/or significant oversight at more senior levels.

    • Organizations have limited opportunities to shape perceptions of fairness in a positive way.  Instead, these perceptions are often shaped by accountability judgments that individual staff don’t share.  This problem is exacerbated when the basis of those judgments must remain confidential.  Here, trust in senior management is absolutely critical.

    • Failures in fairness—whether real or perceived—are inevitable.  Addressing these in ways that reinforce the legitimacy of fairness processes can also be challenging.  

Despite the difficulties, accountability and learning can be balanced so as to provide cultural coherence to staff and align with organizational needs.  Each organization’s unique balance must take into account the needs of constituents, the desires of funders, the strengths and weaknesses of staff along with other factors.  Balances between learning and accountability can change over time as well, depending on the needs of the organization.