Accountability: The Antidote to Chaos

Demonstrating accountability produces organizational credibility

(Hasan Almasi, Unsplash)

By Kristopher T. Blume

 Accountability is a cornerstone of successful fire service organizations. Neither rank nor title confers accountability. Not by a long shot. Accountability is defined as taking ownership of one’s actions and, in turn, their consequences. It is not a “sometimes” thing or applied when it is convenient or expedient. Accountability is an affect and effect of leadership. Consistent and calculated actions and effort define accountable leadership. Employees who witness or suffer from a lack of accountability will affect employee engagement, participation, and ownership. It is not the leader but the led who will bestow the credential of being accountable. Being committed to the organizational values and mission means being committed to and responsible for your actions. Organizational leadership ensures the right people are assigned to the right task. In so doing, it sends a very clear message about being serious about the job and, more importantly, the outcomes. Meaning well or having good intentions is not a substitute for accountability. The saying “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” speaks to the ownership required of accountability. Personal and organizational accountability is an affirmation to protect the organization’s mission and values.

Normalization of Deviation

How do organizations depart from a culture of accountability? Organizations that do not hold their people and, more importantly, themselves accountable allow the effect of laziness to pervade the ranks. This environment will enable some individual’s performance to fall to the lowest “acceptable” level tolerated by management. This is to say, managers and struggling leaders will permit what they promote. Personnel quietly demand accountability as an unspoken organizational necessity. When people believe that their performance will be noticed, they will produce their best work, so being held accountable yields a positive result. Asking subordinates to be accountable when not being accountable yourself should be the punchline of a bad joke.

The insidious effect of normalization of deviation from high standards is the unintended consequence of failed attempts to hold individuals and organizations accountable. The incremental lowering of the bar of acceptable behaviors and performance generates apathy with the rank-and-file. Employees, specifically subordinates, recognize when they are held accountable and especially when they are not. Being personally invested and engaged in the organizational vision and culture fosters an environment where accountability is the antidote to chaos. Organizational ethos will demonstrate the need—and desire— for less micromanagement when accountability becomes an organizational value.

 Organizational Freelancing

Leadership culture that does not value accountability will have peers and subordinates expect the same. Deficient accountability creates a permissive organizational backwater that reinforces the notion that individuals can do whatever they want, much like freelancing on a fireground. When action or inaction demonstrates that people can freely choose to behave and act without consequence, organizational freelancing will be the expected behavior, making accountability an afterthought.

 Exercising Accountability and the “Accountability ‘P’”

 Accountability is not a single reference point but rather a continuum. Let’s begin by looking at accountability the same way we look at the Planning Cycle, or “Planning ‘P’”(Figure 1) that has been used by the National Incident Management System (NIMS). This process is used for Incident Action Planning (IAP) in both emergency and nonemergent operations. Let’s redraft the Planning P to illustrate accountability.

(author graphic)

For this discussion, let’s call it the “Accountability ‘P’” (Figure 2). The long stem of the P forms the inject of the opportunity to demonstrate accountability. The stem of the P is comprised of the introduction to the opportunity or challenge. That is then evaluated and measured against one’s ethics and the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Choosing to engage in the accountability process begins at the decision point with a desire to act.

(author graphic)

The upslope of the “P” determines one’s engagement in the decision-making process. This will require clear, concise communication and a leader’s ability to navigate organizational culture. Attitudes and behaviors that influence acting and being accountable cannot be underestimated. With these considerations being taken into account, we have reached the decision point. Be decisive and invest in credible action. It is after this point that one must endure the outcomes and take responsibility for the decisions that have been made. This is the crux of accountability. When taking responsibility for the outcome–good, bad, or otherwise–own it. All of it. Caveat: It would do one well to give praise for favorable outcomes and take ownership of adverse outcomes.

Now we can transition to the evaluation phase of our “Accountability P.” What worked, and what could we do better next time? Do outcomes support our organizational mission, vision, and values?  Do we own the outcome and decisions associated with the results? If so, we are demonstrating accountability. This process, repeated over and over, is what generates trust and fidelity with our organization’s membership. Documenting what worked and didn’t work is critical to effecting change. Asking for feedback is an emotionally intelligent step that produces tangible dividends with others. Now we are ready for the next challenge or opportunity to enter our “Accountability P” continuum. 

Leaders who feel they do not need to be accountable, and that it is best suited for subordinate consumption, create an illogical paradigm. It would be a futile and frustrating practice—or attempt—to apply supportive or corrective action and feedback for every employee decision. Leaders who invest in making people accountable for their actions, and providing feedback and corrective actions, demonstrate that their behaviors and actions impact the mission of the organization. Investing in employee accountability will produce an environment where personal ownership and excellence can be a source of pride. Early and frequent engagement with employees will prevent arrogance, fear, and apathy from becoming impediments to the desire to be accountable. Move forward with confidence and conviction that accountability is within your ability and is a necessity. Demonstrating accountability produces organizational credibility and hopefully the most valuable of all things, trust.

Kristopher T. Blume is a battalion chief and a 19-year veteran of the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department (Arizona). He is an author, a lecturer, and an independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program through the National Fire Academy and an alumnus of the University of Arizona and has several undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Blume is focused on values-driven, mission-focused leadership for the fire service.