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05 December 2018

When you say you want a ‘culture of accountability’ do you mean you want a culture of responsible practice? If so, what if a focus on accountability kills responsible practice?

A few weeks ago I was presenting a seminar for the Future Leaders Programme run by Wellbeing Teams. I had been invited to talk about coaching and some of the techniques I’ve developed for helping teams and individuals to become more effective without resorting to “old power” approaches.

My main focus for the session was to explore the notion of accountability.  Even for those pushing the envelope of “new power”, there can be a reluctance to let go of the mantra of accountability. In fact, very often there is an invigorated emphasis on it and lots of talk about how colleagues must learn how to “hold each other to account” and have “honest conversations”. Frequently, peer accountability is proposed as the new and better alternative to the overtly “power over” nature of accountability through hierarchy.

However, the problems of accountability are NOT primarily issues of power but of ego. 

Watch for what happens inside you when you are held to account. You may be strong or well practiced enough to resist these urges but do you feel a pull towards the following tendencies?

  • Closing up.
  • Pointing the finger.
  • Getting defensive or going on the attack.
  • Feeling undermined or threatened, occupying a state of anxious hyper-vigilance from which a cascade of further dysfunctions follow.
  • Making excuses for why things work as they do and why they can’t change until others do so first.

Now switch on BBC Parliament and ask yourself, how compelling a case does the mud slinging charade of modern politics make for accountability between peers? How many of the above list do you see in action?

Again, the problem is not one of power. It’s one of ego.

Even when others hold no power over us, being asked to justify and defend our actions and decisions engages that part of ourselves that perceives threat. It’s not rational, it’s instinctual. We may be able to train our response or learn to become more mindful of it but a deeper question might be to ask whether we need to constantly provoke this part of ourselves in the first place?

Compare the list of tendencies above to those we more often get when we engage people in learning-led approaches to development…

  • Opening up.
  • Taking ownership.
  • Seeing individual differences in practice and behaviour as positive opportunities to learn rather than as reasons to criticise or defend.
  • Feeling supported and enabled.
  • Identifying the reasons things work as they do and with a willingness to make progress.

Are these not the behaviours we want?

From Accountability To Responsible Practice

From all of the above, you may be surprised to read that I am not advocating a world in which people and organisations are unaccountable. Accountability ought to persist BUT NOT AS A STRATEGY FOR PROPELLING DELIVERY OR IMPROVEMENT. 

Think of accountability as consequence but not cure. If we want to create responsible practice then instead of “holding to account”, favour listening, compassion, sense-making, reflection, discovery, learning and so on.

View accountability as the zombie form of responsibility; similar at a distance but lacking humanity, likely to terrorise people and eat their brains if let loose but, when all is said and done, still there in the end.

Some Resources For Those Who Are Curious

Here are 2 of my favourites.

  • A wonderfully simple sketchnote by Saskie Dorman, which pulls together some of the key differences at the heart of the shift from accountability to responsible practice...

  • A short video which provides a nice anchor point for being mindful as you work to make the shift a reality... 

Thanks for reading!


Harry Longman

05/12/2018, 05:12 pm

Thought provoking as ever and a truly beautiful video.

Describes all the people I work with perfectly, defensive the whole time, always trying to find fault, trip us up, suspicious and resistant.  I spend my whole time having to fight them or I'd sink instantly, meanwhile I'm constantly let down by people who are allegedly there to support me.

Sorry, what was the question?


05/12/2018, 05:12 pm

I don't know whether to laugh or cry, Harry. I'll opt for neither and just empathise instead. It's a tough environment you are operating in but hopefully, even there, you can find opportunties for fellowship/communityship?

Harry Longman

05/12/2018, 06:12 pm

How's your irony detector?


05/12/2018, 06:12 pm

Ah!!! It did bleep but I thought I might have imagined it :D

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Dawn Allan

12/04/2019, 05:04 pm

I attended Andy’s workshop at the Assoc of Palliative Medicine Conference in March 2019 where he and Saskie Dorman spoke about this fabulous model of accountability.  Thank you, it was an inspiring workshop and I’ve been sharing it with a number of colleagues 😊


12/04/2019, 07:04 pm

Thanks Dawn. I'm delighted you enjoyed the discussion and hope you're finding ways to put it into practice too. Best wishes, Andy.

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