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The Accountability Equation

Holding people, companies, or systems responsible for their mistakes is about more than just pointing a finger at the most convenient target.

These days, it is not usual to find a story splashed across your newsfeed that demands accountability from government or business leaders: long waits for veterans at healthcare facilities, recalled cars, advances by insurgents in the Middle East, financial misdeeds…the list goes on and on. So who’s to blame?

The real question is who to hold accountable for what: Is it the person at the top? Is it the person who actually committed or omitted the act in question? Is it someone in between who made a faulty risk–reward calculation? Is it the larger system in which the accountability waters get muddied? It isn’t always clear cut. The CEO should have known! The CEO couldn’t have known! The CEO might have known but is the best person to rectify the situation!

In the corporate world, things can often be nuanced. Was Target’s CEO really responsible for the data breach that occurred almost a year ago? He was the most high-profile person to lose his job after that incident. Or was it the last straw in a deteriorating situation? Every circumstance is a bit different and so it may be helpful to have a structured framework for thinking about accountability—both to help build accountability into an organization in a way that helps avoid trouble and to mete out fair punishment when needed.

In 2000, David Maister, Robert Galford, and Charles Green described what they called the “trust equation” in their book, The Trusted Advisor: Credibility + reliability + intimacy (the ability to build positive, open relationships) ÷ self-orientation (for example, putting the client’s interests above one’s own equals low self-orientation) = trustworthiness. A high numerator over a low denominator indicates a higher degree of trustworthiness.

Inspired by their work, I’d like to propose an accountability equation, with a structure that illuminates the multiple elements involved and allows for differing relationships between them. In my equation, personal accountability + mutual accountability + system accountability ÷ by mission orientation = the accountability quotient (AQ). Again, a high numerator over a low denominator equals a high degree of accountability.

Personal accountability is representative of one’s honesty and integrity. It is what each of us as individuals bring to the table in terms of our commitment to fulfilling our promises, owning up to mistakes, carrying out our assigned tasks, and acknowledging our responsibility both for our own work and whatever part we play in helping the organization achieve its larger mission or society attain its higher goals. You want to hire people with high levels of personal accountability.

Mutual accountability is the degree to which connected individuals and organizations hold each other to certain standards. The U.S. military’s Special Forces units rely on a high degree of mutual accountability among the members of each unit because mission success is built upon their interdependence; a small number of people can have an impact only when each of them does their individual jobs well and each trusts that he or she can count on every one of the others to do theirs. Finger pointing or shirking one’s load is not tolerated, and team members are empowered to keep expectations and performance norms high. The military’s formal after-action review system helps ensure levels of mutual accountability by comparing what was supposed to happen with what actually happened, without emphasizing individual credit or blame. It has been adapted to other settings, including business.

System accountability represents the external vehicles for making individuals and organizations answerable for their actions. Independent financial audits are designed to ensure that a company’s statements are accurate as markets depend upon precise information. The media serve as watchdogs over politicians and others who might act in ways that are detrimental to the public. Regulators impose legally binding requirements. Industries set voluntary standards such as what the payment card industry established for itself regarding security. System accountability is the last line of defense.

System accountability is the last line of defense.

There is, of course, a balance to be achieved among these three variables. System accountability, no matter how strict, can be slow to catch up where personal and accountability are lacking, as was amply demonstrated by the 2008 financial meltdown. Personal accountability for ethical behavior can be overwhelmed when mutual accountability is only concerned with revenue and profitability. At their best, the elements of the numerator are indeed additive, each reinforcing and amplifying the others.

But it’s not enough, which is why there must be a denominator. The denominator in my accountability equation is mission distraction. If people lose sight of the larger mission because they’re too busy ticking the boxes of pseudo-accountability, the result is counterproductive. Implicit in this are two things:  First, the mission is forward looking and aspirational—and the accountability structures, including rewards and penalties, should be as well. High accountability should be a channel for helping both individuals and organizations better serve their stakeholders, not dishing out retribution or settling petty scores. Second, missions tend to be about more than financial returns. A well-crafted mission describes not only what you want to do but also how you want to do it. A rigorous conception of accountability factors in fidelity to values, including learning from mistakes. Well-established systems such as the balanced scorecard make it easier to see the multiple dimensions of the mission.

This accountability equation is a simplification of a complex idea. It does no good to blame one person for a system failure or to point the finger at the system when it is an individual who has come up short. The three components of the numerator both mark a path for building accountability and also provide a tool for more accurately diagnosing failure. The denominator serves as a compass for aligning the three elements of the numerator. Ideas on how to expand and improve upon it are welcome—my goal is simply to try to pare down the number of depressing misdeeds on my newsfeed.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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