Leveraging Accountability in Networks

In networks we are less able to leverage power to enforce accountability. Leveraging accountability requires a different focus as we are challenged to consider how we connect to personal purpose, relationships and reputation. Considering these approaches benefit leaders in each domain.

Accountability in Hierarchy is Done to You

In traditional hierarchical management, accountability is the responsibility of those in power. Accountabilities are enforced leveraging the power of leaders to reward, punish and exclude.

As a result accountability can be an imposed experience.  Decisions made remotely have impacts on status, rewards and other benefits. Accountability is a transaction of consequences that may not endure. An individual depends on good leaders to fully understand the process by which they are held to account and the rationale of the consequences.

Accountability in Networks is Personal

Confronted by an absence to enforce consequences with power many traditional leaders assume there is no accountability in networks. Individuals collaborating as peers are coming and going under their own authority. How could anyone hold them to account for their actions or decisions. We are too familiar from discussion of trolls and lurking with the idea that in a network domain there is little accountability.

Accountability in networks has not gone but it must be founded in personal decisions, relationships and reputation. Trust is the fundamental commodity of collaboration in networks and trust is a human process with swift and effective accountability.

For an individual to have any accountability in a network, they must have made a personal decision to engage.  The best of these decisions are founded in and reinforce personal purpose. Individuals rarely walk away from commitments aligned to their personal purpose. One of the reasons, efforts to hold lurkers to account fail is that the individual has usually made no explicit commitment to do anything. 

Communicating the decision to engage to others in a relationship is the the foundation for accountability in that relationship. Once the personal decision is shared it creates expectations in another.  How an individual performs against those expectations has implications for their ongoing relationship, their reputation in the community and the trust that others have in them.  Trolls explicitly avoid this relationship. They leverage anonymity to escape personal consequences and explicitly reject the norms of the communities that they attack. Trolling is a transaction in a community built on relationships. The major enterprise social networks rely on verified identities of employees to draw into the organisations community these relationships and their consequences.

Individuals who fail this relationship based approach to accountability will feel consequences. They may not be excluded or punished but they will find their influence decline as people decline to engage with them. Individuals will lose their authority to act. Having proved themselves untrustworthy the network routes around them like a blockage. The consequences of this for an individual can be harsh, devastating and enduring. Ostracism is a punishment for failing accountability in many ancient communities for this reason.

Leverage Accountability in a Relationship

To leverage accountability in networks, even those woven through our hierarchies, leaders need to follow some key practices:

  • Get personal: The best accountabilities are personal so we need to move from imposing accountability on groups to a focus on the individual and the individual’s actions and decisions.
  • Stand for a purpose: Purpose underpins deep accountability. If you stand for a purpose, you have a better chance of drawing the commitment of others who share that purpose and also of those people holding themselves to account.
  • Discover & share common truths: Shared context strengthens accountability. Focus on discovering and sharing common truths. You will be held to account for spin
  • Ask for explicit public commitments: Public commitments become part of relationships. Be explicit. Encourage people to share theirs and ask others in the community to hold them to account 
  • Lead adaptively: Creating tension that enables individuals and the community to reflect on performance and identify opportunities to improve is a key skill. The network will not always listen to leader’s answers but it is more likely to engage with a great question.
  • Enable in a Responsive Organisation: The focus of a Responsive Organisation on autonomy, transparency and experimentation increases the focus on personal commitment and relationships. A Responsive Organisation reduces the excuses around process and policy and seeks to extend the accountability of relationships to customers and community external to the organisation.

Accountability in hierarchies is based on transactions of power. In networks it demands a much more personal and relationship based approach.

This post is the last in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

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