Accountability does not go away to be Psychologically Safe

A common and distorted application of psychological safety is that it is somehow a shield from accountability. Non-performing employees tend to invoke it as an excuse for poor performance, insisting that a focus on psychological safety means valuing people and building relationships. That’s true, but stretching the premise, they claim that we should give them a pass when they don’t perform.

The flawed logic seems to be along the lines of because we may have used fear and intimidation, command and control, and manipulative and coercive tactics with people in the past, in an attempt to hold folks accountable, we must shed the artifacts that drive accountability in order to have an environment of psychological safety.

In my experience, this is especially prevalent when discussing metrics around overdue quality systems records and training. How to discuss what is late, can you even publish a list of folks with overdue training?

I want to be very clear, psychological safety is not a kind of diplomatic immunity from having to deliver results. It is not a shield from accountability.

Being held accountable can be looked at as transparency in progress. Psychological safety allows us to be vulnerable and to trust that the organization will take the problems seriously and address them.

Common Ownership Challenges

Process Ownership Challenges

Governance and ownership challenges often arise in an organization for four reasons:

  1. Business stakeholders who resist assuming ownership of their own processes, data and/or knowledge, or have balkanized/siloed accountability
  2. Turf wars or power struggles between groups of stakeholders
  3. Lack of maturity in one or more areas
  4. Resistance to established governance rules

The Business Struggles with Accountability

Processes often have a number of stakeholders, but no apparent owners. This results in opportunity costs as compulsory process changes (e.g. legislative requirements, systems capacity, or company structural changes) or process improvements are not implemented because the business process owner is unaware of the change, or no clear business process owner has been identified which leads to an increase in risk.

Sometimes processes have a number of stakeholders who all think they are the owners of parts of the process or the whole process. When this overlap happens, each supposed owner often identifies their own strategy for the process and issues their own process change instructions to conform to their understanding of the purpose of the business process. These conflicting instructions lead to frustration and confusion by all parties involved.

Lack of accountability in process and system leads to inefficient processes, organizational disharmony, and wasted energy that can be better spent on process improvements.

Turf Wars

Due to silo thinking there can be subdivided processes, owned by different parts of the organization. For example, count how many types of change control your organization has. This requires silos to be broken down, and this takes time.

Lack of Maturity

Governance is challenging if process maturity is uneven across the organization.

Failure to Adhere to Governance

It can be hard to get the business to apply policy and standard consistently.

Indirect Accountability

The kind of accountability most of us are familiar with is direct accountability: a role is assigned a task and is directly accountable for their result. The role understands the quality, quantity, timeframe, and resource constraints of the deliverable and has the authority to implement plans to achieve it. When completing a RACI this is what we mean by accountability.

Ideally, the individual with direct accountability has the context to understand the limits in which they must work and sufficient knowledge about all of the factors that must be considered to make good decisions. However, that’s not always the case, and for this reason, organizations need to establish lateral roles of indirect accountability to ensure these factors are brought to the attention of the role with direct accountability.

Indirect roles are responsible for initiating action toward directly accountable roles. Indirect roles may be responsible for:

  • Informing: being aware of the factors surrounding the direct and initiating contact to offer advice and recommendations.
  • Persuading: persuading the direct to adjust their actions when there is a risk of undermining process control or when multiple roles fail to work together effectively.
  • Instructing: ordering the direct to stop when working outside of limits and/or take prescribed action to mitigate a catastrophic event.
  • Responding: Provide the direct service and support

Often these indirects are accountable in a supporting process.