Why Isn’t Everyone Accountable? A Work Conundrum

A pattern I’ve seen over and over again at many different jobs is that some people are not held accountable for mistakes, inaction, or even lack of participation, and others seem to be held hyper-accountable. Why is that? Why would a manager not treat everyone equally?

As you might guess, I’ve got a theory!

It’s not even a complicated one. Most managers hold accountable the people who allow themselves to be held accountable.

There are two conversations I bet you’ve seen:

  • The first is the good guy taking the blame, admitting failure, openly and directly. A variation of this is they are willing to say “I don’t know”.
  • The second is the bad guy ducking and weaving, doing their best to not answer in any way that is a firm answer, and if really pushed, launching into some kind of distracting monologue that is designed to obfuscate or even bore the questioner into giving up. That is also how most politicians answer!

Let me give you an example I witnessed years ago. I was in the office of the CIO just chatting, actually sitting on a couch drinking coffee while he was doing some miscellaneous tasks, and a peer walked in to give a quick status report that went something like this:

Mgr: Task X won’t be done until x date because we didn’t do Y.

CIO: But I thought you said last week we were had all the stuff we needed and would absolutely be on time?

Mgr: Correct.

CIO: But we don’t have all the stuff and we won’t be on time?

Mgr: Correct.

CIO: (Getting agitated) You said on Friday we had it all handled!

Mgr: Correct

…meanwhile,I’m still drinking coffee,watching this like a bad tennis match

CIO: (Now red faced and loud) You SAID on FRIDAY we were on track, no problems

Mgr: (calmly, no sense of guilt, shame..more just…blank) Correct

That actually happened. I knew sitting there if I had been involved that:

  • I would have been explaining (but not necessarily excusing) whatever changed from Friday
  • I’d be getting chewed on regardless, because I was supposed to get it done

I also knew that nothing would happen to the onion head. Correct! You could chalk that up to a bad conversation, bad style, etc, but I’ve seen less extreme variations too many times to call it an anomaly.

I think there are a few factors at work here:

  • We calibrate our expectations based on our experience with people. For the people that screw up more often, we factor that in, and unless they finally cross the invisible line which finally gets them put out the door, we live with it
  • Most of us want to play fair. Accountability is hard, because not everything can be accounted for, not everything is under their control, and not every task comes with a 79 page contract outlining the rules, exceptions, etc. We try to find the balance between understanding that stuff happens and admonishing people for things they should (or should not) have done.
  • Most of us don’t like confrontations of any type, so the ones who duck and weave put us in the place of escalating or giving up, and usually its easier to give up. The corollary is that we’re willing to be harsher with the ones that won’t push back because they know they failed and admit.
    • (Note: interestingly, people tend to hold anyone that they haven’t worked with directly to a very high standard, and even more so for people they haven’t met, and even more than that for people that work remote).

Let’s look at it from the other side, call it the down hill side. You’re being held accountable and a peer is not, what do you do?

  • Do nothing. Whining is optional. Always easiest, very practical, and sometimes experience will tell you it’s the only real option.
  • Call your manager on it. Has to be done carefully, but sometimes just sensitizing them to the issue can make a difference. Bring concrete examples! This is in my view worth doing at least once.
  • Call the offender on it. Decide to do it privately (the preferred and professional approach), or wait until next time and call them on it in the group meeting. May fix the immediate issue, but you are spending karma and making enemies. Satisfying though.
  • Stop being accountable. Can you do that? Sure. Just emulate the people that aren’t being held accountable and if pushed, just point that out. May have a negative career impact, but it’s a power play for sure.

See how the ‘do nothing’ plan starts to look pretty good?

So where does that leave us? My friend Steve Jones says you have to treat everyone on your team the same but differently. That’s the Zen of managing, it’s not easy to get right. Not all managers are strong in all areas, and not all employees are easy to manage.

If it sounds ridiculous, it isn’t. It’s very hard to do well, very hard to hold everyone accountable equally. It’s not just work either, you’ll see the same pattern with friends and family.

3 thoughts on “Why Isn’t Everyone Accountable? A Work Conundrum

  1. My last office would rather keep the non-accountable network admin than me (who held myself accountable). One big reason why it”s my ”last office”.


  2. I agree with you completely Andy! And I think this is the flip side of something that has been bothering me for a while. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. It appears to me that Upper management today seems to bury their heads in the sand regarding the AVP”s, managers, and supervisors they allow to manage the various business units and departments. Almost all of the management that I have come across over the last several years have no business being in management, in my opinion. They are impatient, immature, unprofessional, and have no idea how to “manage” people. Why have these “bodies” been placed in such important positions? Why aren”t they held accountable for poor performance and/or turnover in their departments?


    1. Beth, I”m still trying to figure that out! One part of is that we promote the alpha geeks and they rarely translate well into management. It”s a complex issue in some ways, yet it doesn”t seem like it should be hard for all that.


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