HomeOpinionThe problem of many hands

The problem of many hands

In an instalment of this column, in January, I wrote about the need to check the underlying systemic issues before blaming the people when things go wrong.

Sam Hlabati

For those who remember, I mentioned that leaders are often heard saying “Surely the person behind this mess will have to pay”; the fear of reprimand results in team members blaming each other and “it was not me games begin”.

As much as we will check systems, it is important that we also know where things went wrong from the people side, so that performance and competency issues are corrected. In this instalment our discussion will focus on accountability.

Let us begin by understanding the concept of accountability. Firstly we will look at the concept “accountable”; which means being required or being expected to justify one’s actions and or decisions.

We may say that ministers are accountable to Parliament. The concept related to this would be that of being “responsible”; thus having an obligation to do something as part of one’s job or role.

These two concepts bring us to the key concept of our discussion, accountability; which is the fact or condition of being both accountable and responsible.

In the disciplines of ethics and governance, accountability is taken to relate to answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving.

Within your team, accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies.

It covers the administration, governance, and implementation of the foregoing within the scope of team members’ role or employment positions.

In its finality, accountability encompasses the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences.

When raising the bar in corporate governance, accountability expands beyond the basic definition of being called to account for one’s actions; it is frequently described as an account-giving relationship between individuals, eg Abel is accountable to Bruno when Abel is obliged to inform Bruno about his past or future actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual delinquency.

Accountability cannot exist without proper “accounting” practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.

In organisations, many different individuals contribute in many ways to the decisions and policies. It inherently becomes difficult in principle to identify who should be accountable for the results that are eventually attained.
Political ethics
Dennis Frank Thompson (a political scientist and professor at Harvard University, where he founded the university-wide Centre for Ethics and the Professions) known for his pioneering work in the fields of both political ethics and democratic theory was probably the first to use the notion ‘‘the problem of many hands’’ in an article about the responsibility of public officials. He describes the notion as follows: “because many different officials contribute in many ways to decisions and policies of government, it is difficult even in principle to identify who is morally responsible for political outcomes.” While governments are usually designed in a way that makes it difficult to assign accountabilities; for example several spheres of government could be linked to an issue but will shy away from accountability; such as repairing a bridge on a national highway. Would it be the accountability of the municipality in the geographic vicinity, the local provincial or state administration, and the government departments responsible for either roads or public infrastructure? The accountability dilemma will always manifest when there are problems to be solved. When all is well; such as during the initial commissioning of the bridge, all these spheres of government will vie for a slot to speak at the ceremony.
Business reasons
Organisations should ordinarily operate in a manner different from public spheres of government. The structures in organisations have to be clear, duplications and overlaps of duties should be weeded out. The “problem of many hands” outlined by Thompson creates a dilemma for accountability. When many hands (individuals) are held accountable or responsible, individuals who could not have prevented the results are either unfairly punished, or they “take responsibility” in a symbolic ritual without suffering any consequences. At its basic level, accountability involves either the expectation or assumption of account-giving behaviour. Research has shown that people pacify their accountability through strategic use of excuses, justifications, rationalisations and apologies.
The teams in organisations do exist for business reasons. It is important for a leader to understand the reason why a particular team came into existence. This can be done through establishing the following fact: What was the reason for establishing this team? What should be the team’s contribution to the organisation and its strategy? How is the organisation at large depending on the output of the team? How will success look like based on the key drivers for successful performance as a team? These questions should be answered jointly by the team members; this helps them more likely to embrace the team’s organisational accountability and ultimately individual accountability.
Raison d’être
It is important that the foregoing questions about defining the raison d’être (the reason for existence of the team) be answered by all team members so as to bring a culture of accountability within the team. A leader should set time aside have the team define the reason why they exist; thus outlining the team’s responsibility. One of the key “take-away” issues from such a session for defining the team’s existence is that all team members will have a common and shared team purpose, goals and clarity about the importance of achieving these goals through open and specific about expected results. Ultimately, the team member’s will be able to define their operating principles. Team members start to feel accountable when they feel they are in charge of their own success. A feeling of being accountable is often hindered by a lack of clarity about the results that the team expects from each other and from the combined efforts of the team. Just like public figures jostling for the microphone to “say a few words” at the grand opening of public infrastructure, team members would, as easily as a hot knife through butter, accept responsibility when all is well. When everything goes well, practicing accountability– and taking credit – is easy. You may as well be thinking that all is well in your team because you believe most of your team members are “reasonable” and would ordinarily assume full accountability.
Worst storm
Can I say that the only strong ship is the one that has survived its worst storm. It is reported that at the launch of the Titanic in 1911, one of the ship owners said “Not even God himself could sink this ship”. Probably convinced by its gigantic size, yet the ship did not complete its maiden voyage. Thinking that your team could take full accountability could be an illusion to that of the boasting Titanic makers, for they had not tested the seas, they spoke of a ship which was still docked. Have you ever thought “What if things are not going as planned and what if expected results are not met?”
It would put the organisation in jeopardy if team members get into political blame –shifting games when “things fall apart” If you really want to know the level of accountability in your team, watch what happens when something goes wrong, thus the day the Titanic hits an iceberg.
One of the main killers of accountability is a culture of ‘blame and shame”, which is usually bolstered by the leader themselves through allowing members to come to them to back-bite each other about blameworthiness in times of trouble.
Culture of blame
When team members assume blameworthiness for a decision that went wrong, it is not necessarily a confession that would make the leader’s task easier when “disciplining” a team member. Rather the leader should take the opportunity to sit with the team member to review what could have possibly gone wrong. The leader should use a disaster as a learning opportunity for the team member, the leader themselves and the entire team; remember the road to hell is paved in gold. A leader should give priority to the team becoming stronger in the future, rather than punishing team members. A leader can reduce the pressure on team members by making it clear that it is acceptable to make mistakes, as long as everyone learns from them.
Carlos Ghosn is a French-Lebanese-Brazilian CEO who has been credited with turning around the Japanese carmaker Nissan and making the Renault-Nissan alliance a success. When he landed in Japan in 1999, he shook his head in utter disbelief when he saw what was happening. He was to write in article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Saving the Business Without Losing the Company – Breaking with Tradition in a Foreign Land”; he said “…another deep-seated cultural problem we had to address was the organization’s inability to accept responsibility. We had a culture of blame. If the company did poorly, it was always someone else’s fault. Sales blamed product planning, product planning blamed engineering, and engineering blamed finance. Tokyo blamed Europe, and Europe blamed Tokyo. One of the root causes of this problem was the fact that managers usually did not have well-defined areas of responsibility.”

One would wonder how Ghosn succeeded in transforming a blame culture into a culture of personal accountability. I would say that the leader should start by assuming more accountability themselves; thus by setting the right example, and explicitly assuming their own accountability upfront. When he announced the Nissan revival plan, Ghosn publicly declared he would resign if the company failed to accomplish its objectives. “Judge me”’, he told the world. The objectives were achieved, a year ahead of schedule.

Successful team
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” recommended “that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast (that has become a symbol of Liberty and Freedom) should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” (The Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World; French: La Liberté éclairant le monde) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in the middle of New York Harbour, in Manhattan, New York City”

Frankl stated: “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.

In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.” I would add to Frankl’s word and say, “…responsibleness and accountability, thus accountability”.

Leaders should ensure that when the need arises, responses are readily available and are given for a person’s action; whether positive or negative. In other words, accountability refers to one being responsible for one’s work and answering to one’s peers and superiors for one’s performance.

A prerequisite for successful team collaboration is that team members embrace accountability; in the sense that they feel ownership for the team’s objectives, feel committed to achieve these objectives, and feel personally responsible for their contribution to the team’s success. Leaders play a crucial role in stimulating this.

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati

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