“I can’t recall whether we discussed cutting the age pension to balance the budget or not”.
“I don’t remember if I recommended that we index petrol excise”.
“I was unaware of the specific level to which we discussed raising the GST”.
Imagine Arthur Sinodinos using the words he used with monotonous regularity in his testimony before the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales, in a discussion about his real job as an officer of the Government.
In listening to the reports of his evidence, I was reminded of an article I wrote a few years ago on accountability and the art of plausible deniability and thought to myself: how do people in such positions of power and of such privilege feel that they should be free of accountability?
How do they, when they seek leadership positions, equate leadership with their unequivocal eschewing of accountability? How do they expect the people that they lead to react, when they deflect acceptance in their role of anything untoward by means of poor memory or clever use of words? In Sinodinos’ case, to the point of damaging his reputation of being a man good on detail and able to get a grasp of complex issues?
How do they confuse selfish arrogance with leadership? We have seen so much deflection of accountability over the years from Alan Bond through to Mark McInnes and now Senator Sinodinos – it seems that an uncomfortable proportion of Australian leaders are selfishly arrogant.
To illustrate what I mean, when I was working for Shell there was a particular time when selfish arrogance masqueraded itself as leadership in our retail business in Australia.
The retail senior managers fell down on the fundamentals of leadership, replacing the fundamentals with a warped sense of self-aggrandisement. There were seven key areas in which they matched the requirements of selfish arrogance rather than leadership.
Leaders of the business at that time set out to deceive rather than inspire, by manipulating results to suit the arguments supporting their agenda at the time rather than dispassionately analysing the results to create a vision which could withstand the scrutiny of time.
Rather than set expectations for their teams, they had a ‘winner takes all’ attitude: forming, breaking and reforming alliances to get their way. Their way was not based on a particular view of how the business should be run, that was malleable. Their interest was in how important and significant they looked. Their teams could not keep up with the changing expectations of what was ‘good’.
Instead of facilitating understanding with their teams and between their teams and with distributors, they concentrated their efforts on peddling influence with more senior managers. Within the retail team, junior managers aspired to have influence over the retail manager or with the commercial manager as their main measure of success.
Mentoring juniors became a game of manipulation. Manipulating their people to make them look better, rather than allowing them to grow and achieve more than they thought they could.
Plausible deniability was stock on trade when bravado faltered. Owning up to errors and omissions and working hard to correct them was not on the agenda.
Holding people accountable is a leadership role, but when it morphed into actions designed to gain personal benefit, it became bullying.
Leaders challenge their people to do more, to continuously improve their skills and knowledge and their ability to achieve results. The leaders in retail turned this into berating people for not living up to expectations to make them look good.
A key driver of selfish arrogance is a lack of accountability.
Accountability can be described as the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called on to justify one’s beliefs, feelings and actions to others (Scott & Lyman, 1968).
Research by Sedikides, Herbst, Hardin & Dardis (2002) has demonstrated that people who believe that they do not have to take, or are unwilling to take accountability, overestimate their ability and the impact of their actions. When they feel that they are likely to be held accountable, their level of self-enhancement is significantly reduced. The key factor in feeling that they are likely to be held accountable is that they will be identified with the outcome of their efforts.
So, from that research we know that people are less likely to be arrogant about their capability and their impact if they know that they are going to be held accountable for their claims. But what of the reverse? What do we do to encourage people to take accountability for their actions and the consequences?
Setting expectations is the starting point for people taking accountability. This may be by shareholders of the board, the board of the management team and individual managers of their direct reports and so on. This Line of Sight, as we call it, from the shareholders to individuals, is key in ensuring that there is alignment in personal and organisational vision and that actions taken are consistent with that state of being.
Frequent, specific and timely feedback against those expectations creates an environment where individuals feel that their actions and their impact are quite visible which research has shown is a significant driver of people taking accountability (Sedikides, Herbst, Hardin, & Dardis, 2002).
Walking the talk, doing what you say – whatever phrasing you want to use – leaders must back up their stated intentions, policies, processes with action which is consistent with them. Once a leader is seen to not be consistent with what they say, an almost irreversible environment of “it does not matter” is created.
The work that people do must have a perceived value or significance to the organisation. If the work they do has no purpose in their mind, it does not matter whether they accept accountability or not.
Being a leader is not having a place in the organisational diagram. It is not about position brought about by privileged backgrounds and experiences. Being a leader, at its very base, is about being accountable. Being accountable starts with owning up to what you did rather professing to being a touch too forgetful.
Scott, M. B., & Lyman, S. (1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review, 46-62.
Sedikides, C., Herbst, K. C., Hardin, D. P., & Dardis, G. J. (2002). Accountability as a Deterrent to Self-Enhancement:. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 592-605.
Image sourced from the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) with thanks.