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How Does Detroit’s Possible Bankruptcy Link to Workplace Accountability?

This summer’s news included the City of Detroit’s dire financial condition – seeing bankruptcy as the only option for the longstanding state of financial crisis and becoming the largest city in the US to file bankruptcy. Certainly, Detroit made agreements to be accountable to their workers, vendors, bankers, companies and individual tax payers.

What does it mean to be accountable?

Detroit-Accountability-ImagRecently in a workshop on Building a Culture of Accountability and Engagement, I presented two definitions of accountability as a common starting point for discussion:

1.  Accountability is the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences. (Wikipedia)

The wiki definition seems to fit Detroit’s situation quite well. The second deals specifically with workplace accountability:

2. Doing the right thing consistently, day in and day out, in tasks and relationship interactions to fulfill or further the mission of the organization.

(Please add any other definitions you’ve found as blog comments to share.)

As I revisited these definitions again; it hit me that each definition lacks a very important element– change. We live in a world of constant change; we are in continual change.

When we embrace responsibility for something – a task or project – we base our decision on what we are doing today and what we expect the future to be –two days or many years from now.  Often, we say, “I’ll do my best” and if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what we are really saying is, “if everything goes according to my plan, without any obstacles or changes, I will do what I agreed to do.” Do we ask ourselves: am I competent to do this? Can I handle problems as they occur? Am I really committed?

So, perhaps city officials took on the responsibility of providing pensions for its public workers and paying back their debts, all with the best intentions based on thinking that Detroit would grow its revenue base, collect all its fines and property taxes, have plentiful lending options with favorable interest rates. Like Detroit, we have “conditions” under which we will perform that does not take into account any negative changes to our pre-supposed plan. Or, some folks live in such a state of job uncertainty that they say “yes” knowing fully well that they can never do what is required but don’t want to be seen as someone unwilling to step up and do their part.

This thinking pattern allows us to shed responsibility and put blame on others for our own lack of accountability. Too often, we say:

  • “well, my priorities changed and I couldn’t get to it”
  • “I was headed to do something more important at the time”
  • “we are short-staffed today;” or
  • “the economy didn’t improve so we didn’t receive the revenue we expected.”

To really embrace our obligation and agreements with others, we need to commit to overcoming obstacles when they occur and being creative about solutions to meet our agreements. I would add these words to that definition:

3.  Accountability is the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences, overcoming obstacles or anything that threatens our success or when necessary, renegotiate or clarify responsibility when faced with changing circumstances.

Instead of putting energy around finding loopholes to skirt accountability, we need to focus on finding solutions to meet obligations.   Don’t accept a “game change” as a deal breaker.  Instead, those who really demonstrate accountability dig deep and hold true to values such as determination, persistence and steadfastness.

What is acceptable in your organization’s culture?  How do you or your staff deal with “changes” that affect commitments? What kinds of values do you or others endorse? How do you deal with breaches of accountability? What excuses are acceptable; which are not? Has accountability ever been a topic of discussion?

One news article pointed out how Detroit has left $246 million dollars in property taxes uncollected, failed to get $280 million due in court fines, and has not yet considered liquidating possible fixed assets. Believe me, I’m not judging Detroit government; rather, I’m thankful that I’m not in their shoes. Clearly, this is not today’s problem;  some say it started 50 years ago. Detroit is not alone. When do we start to be accountable for our actions and see change as a challenge to be reckoned with – not an excuse to jump ship?

2 Responses to “How Does Detroit’s Possible Bankruptcy Link to Workplace Accountability?” Leave a reply ›

  • I am confused by the interchangeble use of “accountability” and “responsibility.” I think each term should be clearly defined and used accordingly.

  • Thanks Tom for adding to the discussion. Yes, you make a good point; this is often an area of confusion. We like to use a RASCI chart to clarify the distinction between accountability and responsibility. (I’d be happy to send you a sample tool.) The person “responsible” is often the “doer” and someone else (manager, project leader) is accountable for the results. We have added a small “a” to the chart because to drive accountability down in an organization, it is desirable to have the person “responsible” accountable for that task or activity. Furthermore, the person with the overall accountability needs to hold the person “responsible” accountable. In this way, responsibility and accountability are like interlocking pieces of a chain.

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