Management-by-Fear is the current fad. Across the country, in conference rooms of every size, governors are looking at cabinet members’ performance measures and demanding to know why the curve isn’t bending. There are city managers berating department heads because the trend line is going in the wrong direction. There are federal appointees making up excuses for why the green light turned yellow on their dashboard. Again, nobody calls it Management-by-Fear. Its called accountability, managing for results, dashboards, scorecards and STAT, to name a few. Different names, same assumption: The way we get better results is to hold people accountable for measurable goals. Unfortunately, as we explored in the previous column, not only do these accountability systems rarely work (affixing blame instead of fixing systems), they also produce devastating side effects (gaming the measurement system and increasing fear).
I used to believe very strongly in accountability systems. I have created and implemented every one of the buzzwords from the previous paragraph. And none of them made a bit of difference. Not because (as commentors to the previous column argued) we didn’t do them right. Rather, it’s because we have gotten the notion of accountability all wrong.
My view on accountability was greatly changed by the stories of soldiers from World War II. My grandfather had fought in the war, but, like so many of his generation, he had chosen not to speak of it. I had no idea what he went through until I saw the incredible work of Stephen Ambrose, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This graphic, eye-popping series followed Easy Company from the storming of Normandy Beach through the liberation and the eventual end of the European conflict. Each episode of the 10-part series showed a key battle through the eyes of one of the true-life characters. You saw what they saw and felt what they felt through some amazing acting and directorial magic. What was most memorable, however, were the last five minutes of each story, when the show interviewed the actual soldier depicted. Seeing the gentleness in their faces and the wisdom in their eyes, the bottled-up pain and their lifelong quest for a peaceful place to live out their days, brought me to tears. I appreciated my grandfather as I never had before.
If you’ve seen the series or know about the events, you know that these men displayed acts of unthinkable courage. They ran head-long into a hail of bullets. They dived on grenades and ran across enemy lines with little regard for their own life. How? How did the military breed that kind of dedication? How do they continue to do that? Why does a soldier give his life? Surely it’s because he is accountable to his Sergeant and doesn’t want to let his Sergeant down. And the Sergeant is accountable to his Major, and the Major to his Colonel. And all the way up the chain, everybody is accountable to someone above them.
Of course not. What the military knows, and what the soldiers in Band of Brothers revealed, was exactly the opposite. The front-line troops didn’t feel accountable to their commanding officer. Heck, they didn’t even like their commanding officer, and could care even less about his commanding officer. They were accountable to each other. They would rather take a bullet than see their friend take one. They risked their lives to save the man next to them, knowing full well that man would do the same. True accountability is shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s horizontal. Yet we keep trying to make it vertical. True accountability looks like love; we keep making it feel like fear.
Rather than creating a band of brothers (and sisters), rather than cultivating teamwork, togetherness and — dare I say it? — love, we continue to divide, separate and force competition. We incentivize the chain of command but do little to cultivate the foxhole. We keep trying to “re-form” government. Thinking that another accountability form or scorecard will create excellence. That type of accountability only breeds compliance — doing just enough to avoid punishment. We can’t comply our way to excellence. Excellence is a pursuit of the heart.
So how do we create shoulder-to-shoulder accountability? Create more foxholes. Continually cultivate ways for people to work together for a common good. Create organizational puzzles to solve and use teams to solve them. As I wrote about in The Profound Puzzles of Effective Management, good leaders don’t have all the answers. Rather, they frame puzzles and challenge their people to solve them. The best way to do this is to form a team of people who work in a system to come together with people who are affected by the system to create a better system. Much like real foxholes, these team projects are harrowing and intense at the time, but create bonds that last a lifetime.
These foxhole moments not only create shoulder-to-shoulder accountability as the team members struggle, fight, gel and transcend. These moments also create the other powerful accountability: over-the-counter accountability. That is, accountability to the people we serve. Again, a child-abuse case worker may loathe her supervisor and may not particularly enjoy her co-workers, but just try to get between her and what is best for the kids she is trying to protect. No top-down accountability system can produce even a fraction of the motivation, passion and creativity that comes from accountability to your team and your customers.
Vertical accountability perpetuates the parent-child relationships that so permeate our agency cultures. Management author Peter Scholtes laments that most of our organizational cultures, rather than being populated by adult-to-adult relationships, instead are dominated by parent-child relationships. When we see others as children, we treat them accordingly. We try to direct them and control them. We punish them and praise them. If they please us, they get a reward. If they displease us, they get a talking-to. With this mentality, all organizational progress takes the same energy as getting a three-year-old to put his shoes on.
Look at your own life. Who are you really accountable to? Who would you never want to let down, not in a million years? Are they above you or beside you? Is the relationship built on love or fear? What can you do to help foster those types of relationships in the workplace? What is your agency’s Normandy Beach or Battle of Bastogne? How are you building a Band of Brothers (and Sisters)?
*This article first appeared on Governing’s Public Great