Collegiality and Accountability in the Workplace

A major challenge to leaders is how to foster both high collegiality and a high level of accountability in the workplace. Leaders often experience the challenge as the difference between being a nice boss and a hard-driving one. On the receiving end of the equation, i.e. from the staff point of view, collegiality and accountability are also experienced as opposite extremes, the trade-off between a friendly supportive culture and a hard-nosed, results-oriented culture.

Neither approach, however, offers a complete answer to how to get things done; the positives and negatives of each approach can be readily identified (see matrix below.) So the truth lies elsewhere: in fact both are legitimate, and each approach deteriorates if not tempered by the other. The aim is therefore to manage both factors at the same time.

Collegiality and AccountabilityOne of the practical difficulties of managing this apparent contradiction stems from the fact that most people experience stress whenever the topic of accountability is discussed; it immediately triggers trust issues about measurements and evaluation, as well as concerns about fairness and safety. Once they become anxious about something, individuals withdraw into themselves with little hope for collegiality. In order to unravel this conundrum, one needs to focus on both the emotional and the cognitive realities that a team faces when it comes together to sort out strategy, performance and organizational changes.

When calling for such a meeting, the leader needs to be mindful that as long as people worry about their fundamental needs of safety, dignity, recognition and fulfillment, they are not able to dedicate their full personal resources to the outcomes of the group. It is only when team members can freely express their concerns and cares that they can take part more fully in a productive joint exploration of the purpose of the group, its specific objectives, and the ways in which the group intends to coordinate action. This simple process more than anything else draws every participant to be more engaged. The absolute condition for this to happen is, of course, that the process is authentic, i.e. that individuals really feel safe to speak their mind.

Once the group reaches a state of collegiality, it is important to focus on the accountability dimension before the meeting draws to its conclusion; commitments for action must be captured into a framework that outlines the desired outcomes, conditions of completion, roles and responsibilities, and timetables. If that process is not completed, the prerequisites for ongoing performance will not be in place: predictably the intensity of the initial group meeting will wither away, commitments will fade and follow-up will grow erratic. Many good meetings end on a high note with little to show for in the weeks that follow.

Finally, and as an important side note. In order to avoid the resistance that naturally arises around the subject of accountability, the accountability mechanism cannot be added post facto; the standards of measurement and evaluation must be discussed openly within the group so concerns about it can be expressed and considered, and the purpose of the mechanism be fully understood and accepted.

Goals of collegiality and accountability are not mutually exclusive pursuits, but they are not a stable combination either. They do require the constant awareness and attention from the leader. The job is never done, yet it is the essence of leadership: inspiring people and getting things done.

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