“People will be accountable and committed to what they have a hand in creating.”

 Peter Block

Many of us know or remember the feeling of dread preceding an annual review. Sitting at my desk, I would go through a mental checklist of perceived failures along with my planned response for each one. Regardless of whether you have a good boss or bad boss, there is an expectation during the review process that you will get a bit of praise and then some things you can “work on.” Perhaps you’ll leave with a pay raise. Or, you’ll be placed on probation or shown the door.

Sounds fine and normal, right? The default model of accountability is based on “keeping everyone in check.” When we talk about accountability, we automatically assume there is some combination of:

  • Authority (someone to answer to)
  • Policies, rules, and/or objectives (clear expectations)
  • Enforcement (rewards and punishment)

Coercive AccountabilityWorkers are accountable to their managers. Athletes are accountable to their coaches and general managers. Children are accountable to their parents.

This model is not inherently bad, but it is coercive and controlling. With quality leadership, vision, objectives, and standards it can work quite well. But its success is always limited as Peter Block points out:

“The weakness in the dominant view of accountability is that it thinks people can be held accountable. That we can force people to be accountable. Despite the fact that it sells easily, it is an illusion to believe that retribution, incentives, legislation, new standards, and tough consequences will cause accountability.”

There is a different model of accountability that is circular rather than hierarchical. In this view, the commitment between team or community members is what sustains the accountability rather than pressure from above.

Peer Accountability

It’s easy to view this model as simply peer pressure. If we consider actions taken with peer pressure are typically to “fit in,” peer accountability is somewhat different. This relational form of accountability works when there is already cohesiveness, or the principle of membership operating, within the group or team. Members are not trying to “fit in” as much as they are working together for the good of the whole.

Accountability arises from the commitment of the members, and increases with shared purpose, trust, and a flow of quality interactions between them. This is what makes organizations like Buurtzorg extremely successful. Teams of 8-12 nurses serve people in their community without a boss, and with high satisfaction rates and lower costs.

But it’s not easy. There still must be governing principles, tools for handling disputes, and initiation into to a different way of interacting. Leadership is still necessary, it’s just based upon function rather than role.

Leadership with Peer Accountability

It’s a beautiful thing to witness – people invested in the group and what it is doing. Unfortunately there is no easy formula or road to adoption.

“Accountability is the willingness to care for the well-being of the whole.”

— Peter Block