Ask any manager about accountability, he or she will tell you that if s a great thing to have. Ask how to get it, however, and the answers become vague, especially as many organizations move to self-managed cross-functional teams and semi-autonomous work groups.

Accountability often gets relegated to the bin of "antiquated thinking," a relic of "old hierarchical management." But the problem refuses to go away, because when things go wrong (or, just as important, when they go well), who gets the blame (or credit)?

One cannot avoid accountability issues. You either have it or you don't. Many Companies think they do, but in fact don't.

Whole Teams Don't Get Fired

Can a manager really hold a multidisciplinary team accountable for a certain piece of work? You think you know what it means to hold an individual accountable, but does the word have the same meaning when applied to a team or unit? For example, have you ever heard of an entire team being fired, or promoted for that matter?

Certainly, bonuses are awarded, but usually everyone receives the same amount. Does that really reflect the differential contributions from the team members? Most times it does not. And what about the highly capable workers the next time around?

Should we scrap all teams and work units, even whole departments, and have everyone working solo? Obviously not. Work groups, teams, departments, task forces, and other collective entities are often able to accomplish a lot more than individuals. But much of their potential is wasted unless harnessed through the appropriate structure and monitored by means of individual accountability.

Necessary Conditions

Management theorist Elliott Jaques points out that if A is to hold B accountable for the work output of C, then four fundamental conditions must be present. If they are not, accountability cannot exist and no amount of "group thinking" will make it so. To hold her subordinate, B, accountable for the work produced by the unit members, C, the following conditions must be granted to B by A:

1. The right to veto any forced assignment of unit members.

A manager cannot force a subordinate to have team or unit members whom she simply cannot work with or who she feels are incapable of doing the work. After discussion and negotiation, B must agree that she has an acceptable configuration to get the job done.

2. The right to decide tasks and hand out work assignments.

B must be empowered to decide who delegates the work and controls overall direction. Obviously, A provides the larger context and ensures that the work is performed according to company policy, but B must have the authority to decide what the work assignments are and who does what. This means no "micro-managing" from A. Otherwise, it becomes A's project and therefore A's accountability.

3. The right to make final judgment on performance review and raises.

B must have the authority to evaluate the effectiveness of the Cs and make decisions regarding merit raises within their pay scale and/or award bonuses for performance. In other words, although B cannot promote someone to a new rank, she can hand out rewards and control raises and bonuses within her unit. If A overrides these decisions, B loses accountability for the unit's performance.

4. The right to initiate, with due process, removal from unit.

If some Cs cannot be coached into acceptable performance or do not comply with company rules, B must have the authority to begin the process of removing them from her unit. This does not necessarily mean termination; it can mean placing them elsewhere at the bank. If B is insistent, and A continues to keep the employees there against B's will, then one of the primary conditions of accountability will be violated.

Here are some tips on how to make the system work:

* Never let the team choose its own leader. Just as a team cannot be held accountable for work, it cannot be held accountable for selecting its own leader.

* The manager who assigns the project should select a single team leader - co-leadership does not work - and help the leader form the unit.

* If a team is composed of organizational equals, it may be difficult or impossible for a team leader to make realistic judgments about the quality of output. The situation becomes simpler if a senior manager heads up a team of more junior employees, because he or she is capable of realistically evaluating the various contributions.

* Review meetings should be held to track the team's progress and adjust its mission, if necessary.

* Many financial institutions lack a clear structure that makes managers and subordinates accountable for their work. Accountability is fundamental. When accountability is clear, productivity and efficiency follow.

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