Joint Accountability: A Key For Your Effectiveness

Roger Schwarz

I once was part of a group of management professors who often taught in executive development seminars. Other non-management professors in the school ran these. Occasionally these non-management professors would approach someone else in the management group to express their concerns about our teaching – they wouldn’t approach the person who had taught for them.

For example, if I had taught the session, the professor – let’s call him Larry – would approach my colleague Dick and tell him that he was concerned about my performance. After Dick tested his assumption that Larry hadn’t given me this feedback, Dick asked what led him not to talk directly with me. Larry almost always said that he didn’t want to upset me. Sometimes Larry or another professor would tell Dick that they wanted him to tell me their concerns, but not tell me that they had told him. Other times, they would request that Dick not tell me.

At this point Dick would ask, “What is your purpose in telling me if you don’t want Roger to know?” Dick did not agree to their conditions – he held them accountable for their views. More about this later.

Different story, same organization: When the school was looking for the equivalent of a new Dean, there were three final candidates, all internal to the school. The search committee told the faculty that they would accept letters evaluating the three candidates, but that they would only give weight to signed letters.

I was in a bind. I very much wanted one candidate to get the position, and was very concerned about another candidate getting it. I wanted to write a letter, but I was an untenured assistant professor. I had reason to believe that if I signed it and the candidate I had great concerns about got the position, my tenure might be in jeopardy.

I checked with my colleague Kurt, who was also a member of the search committee. He said to me, “Roger, you teach this stuff – you don’t have a choice.” He held me accountable for my views. More about this later.

Both of these stories focus on the Mutual Learning core value of joint accountability. Being accountable means you are responsible for addressing your problems with others directly with them rather than avoiding them or asking others to handle them for you.

Joint accountability also means that you share responsibility for a situation, including the consequences it creates. If you are working with others on a task, you are jointly accountable to each other for performing the task and the consequences of your joint actions. If things don’t work out as planned, rather than seek to blame others, you recognize that because you are part of a system, your actions contribute to either maintaining the system or changing it.

Chris Argyris’ research and our experience at Roger Schwarz & Associates tells us that though this kind of accountability feels risky, people get far better results when they consistently apply it.

In many organizations we work with, senior executives call for people to be accountable for the work they perform, but not for the relationships that create the work. This is particularly true about joint accountability between co-workers. When someone has a concern about a co-worker, rather than talk directly with the co-worker, they talk to others about the coworker. This approach often gets them results they find totally unacceptable – yet they continue to apply it!

That’s what was happening in my first story. My management faculty colleagues and I agreed that we would not allow colleagues to give feedback indirectly – we wanted more accountability.

We agreed that when Larry told Dick he didn’t want me to know, Dick would say that I needed to know, otherwise I couldn’t improve my performance, which was Larry’s interest. Dick would agree to coach Larry on how Larry could give me feedback and Dick would even agree to be present to help Larry give me the feedback. If Larry still said he didn’t want me to know, Dick would say that he couldn’t honor an agreement that would withhold important information about my performance. Dick would tell Larry that he (Dick) planned to give me Larry’s feedback and that I would likely come visit Larry to find out firsthand what Larry’s concerns were about my performance. When Dick gave me the feedback, I went to Larry’s office and, with genuine curiosity, asked about his concerns with my performance. By working in this way, my management colleagues and I asked our other colleagues to be accountable to us directly and we were accountable to them.

And the second story?

Kurt told me that if I was going to walk my talk, my only choice was to write a letter and sign it. I wrote the letter evaluating all three candidates using specific examples, and sharing my conclusions about their leadership ability based on the data I had. After emailing the letter to the search committee, I emailed a copy to all three candidates. I told them that, as my peers, I owed them the same feedback about their performance that I gave to the search committee. My only request was that if they had questions or concerns about what I wrote that they talk with me directly.

Ten minutes after sending the email, the candidate who I was most concerned about knocked on my door and asked to talk. We had a difficult but productive conversation. He agreed with my data but came to different conclusions about his leadership ability. He thanked me for sharing the letter with him. We remained good colleagues as he became the equivalent of Associate Dean. And I got tenure.

How does your organization or the organizations you consult to handle this kind of accountability? How do you handle it yourself?

Originally published July 2005