Taking charge: decision making and accountability in the organization

Objectives are not reached, internal agreements are not fulfilled, deviations in the budgets become habitual… Time to review the decision making in the company.

Everyone says they want to change the situation. But no one takes charge. It is not clear who is responsible for the poor results, or for the corrective measures.

Accountability is a concept which can be understood as “taking charge”. This has a lot to do with the way we make decisions in the organization.

To start thinking about the issue of accountability, it is necessary to start by diagnosing why this could be happening to us.

In our experience in companies, we frequently hear managers complain that their teams (and even more so, those of others) don’t take charge. No one makes decisions taking responsibility for the results. When this happens, people are heard referring to themselves in the third person, fingers are pointed at other areas and, above all, people are seen explaining with external reasons why it was impossible for us to obtain another result.

The “I already sent the e-mail” effect

Who hasn’t heard phrases like, “I spoke to him, but he didn’t answer” that focus on the action taken and not the result that had to be obtained. Sometimes, it is common to see how it is easier to settle for the tasks to be carried out than to think about the final objective. Of course, those who care about achievement look for ways to accomplish it, much more than just thinking about performing an action.

In some excessively hierarchical cultures it is more difficult, since the mentality is to do only what I was entrusted to do. The one who obeys is limited to executing tasks. In more open cultures there is more freedom, but also more responsibility for the end result.

Blame (post) or responsibility (pre)?

It is common for organizations to see accountability as something that appears when things go wrong, when a problem appears, when we do not achieve the objectives or are below the expected performance. Thus, hidden behind the mask of accountability is the desire to find someone to blame and this way, “close the issue”. If “being accountable” is something that appears only with bad results, it is a title to be feared. For this reason, sometimes what happens is that the excessive eagerness for misunderstood accountability ends up being detrimental to achieving the desired attitude.

But if we change our perspective and focus not on autopsying bad results, but on the responsibility for achieving them (in the “pre”, and not in the “post”), “being Accountable” will be something much more motivating and powerful for captivating people. If instead of asking, “Who is responsible for this result?”, we start asking, “Who takes responsibility for achieving the desired results?”, surely more people will appear enthusiastic about enlisting there and consequently assuming the decisions that must be made.

Does leadership take charge?

People continually watch whether leaders position themselves in the decision-making role. The observation takes place in three areas.

Business decisions. Collaborators expect the leader to assume the decisions as his own and take charge of their consequences, without hiding behind variables he cannot handle. When even the leader can’t take charge, it is very difficult for the rest of the organization to. We already know that leadership is not taught, it is exemplified.

Organizational decisions. Employees expect the leader to be able to influence the organization so that his team can be fully in charge of its results, without other company variables acting as an anchor. As an example, he will be expected to obtain the necessary resources, to clarify service agreements with other areas, to commit to ambitious and achievable goals, among others.

Decisions about people. Employees expect the leader to take charge of issues that affect people on a personal and professional level, such as working conditions, the work environment, incentives, and the development plan.

With these decisions, employees expect their leader to “take charge, so we can take charge”.

The strategic agenda and critical decisions

The key element is clarity about the purpose of accountability: what exactly do we have to take charge of? It is important that the objectives pursued and the critical decisions to achieve them are known.

Goal setting is often part of a formal strategic planning process that defines and communicates top-down strategy. The problem is that, in many cases, there is not even a good strategic exercise process or good communication of the goals to be achieved.

To address the consequences, we must first be able to identify critical decisions at the right time. What are the decisions that truly “move the needle”?

If there is no clarity on this matter, it will be very difficult to get someone to take responsibility.

Decision roles and responsibilities

Once the strategic agenda is established, it is necessary to assign roles and responsibilities for the key decisions. Although it may seem elementary, it is very common for organizations to have ambiguities and confusion regarding who the decision makers are.

The exercise of identifying which are the critical decisions is rarely carried out and, therefore, who should make them is frequently unknown. For example, a definition that affects product X in Peru, should it be taken by the brand manager at the regional level or by the local marketing manager?

If there is no clarity on this issue, it will be difficult to build a culture of accountability in the organization.

To start the path towards real accountability, it is essential that the leadership make a firm decision in that direction. It is necessary to communicate the cultural change that is expected, reinforce the values of the decision-makers’ behaviors and give new meaning to failure. Leaders at different levels must be part of this change.

Lastly, addressing the ordering of the hard part of the challenge, clearly identifying the critical decisions and the expected roles in them.

In short, achieving a culture of accountability requires improving and sustaining high-level performance. In this article, we have presented some guidelines to move forward in this regard.

Federico Esseiva
Partner at Tandem.

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