Accountability at Work: Are You a Sheriff, Deputy or Delinquent?

Gordon Dmytriw

Accountability. It's one of the biggest challenges that all CEOs and leaders face, and this Tool can help mitigate the social cost that's often faced with accountability.

In this video, Gord Dmitryw explains three main reasons why accountability is often avoided in the workplace. Try using this tool, called the Co-Accountability Triad, to make accountability more consistent in your organization. It involves three parties: the sheriff, the deputy and the delinquent.

While it’s normally expected for the sheriff to hold the delinquent accountable, the deputy can step in as a neutral party. By reminding the sheriff of her duty, the deputy discharges some of the social burden onto himself.

In the tumbleweed town called accountability, the sheriff can't always do it alone. Everyone needs to step up and be the deputy from time to time.

When people step in as the deputy, everyone becomes more comfortable holding others accountable and being held accountable. As a result, accountability becomes more consistent and welcomed in your culture.

So ask yourself: Which triad role do I find myself in most often, and how do I play the role of the sheriff more?

Learn more about the reasons preventing accountability and the Co-Accountability Triad Tool by watching Gord's video below.

For more detailed advice on creating a culture of accountability, read our whitepaper on engaging and motivating all generations in the workplace.

Read the Whitepaper



Accountability is sort of like the weather: everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

According to a recent article in HBR, one out of every two managers is terrible at accountability. This failure to be firm when others don't deliver holds up regardless of industry, whether you're in the C-suite or at the director level or supervisor level. Even across cultures. We just don't do accountability very well.

In this article, the authors - Overfield and Kaiser - offer three broad reasons for this.

1. Politics and popularity before results.

Move away from character-based management ethic to more of a personality-based one. Some time in the 80s, we began managing our popularity rather than productivity. As a result, we started avoiding tough conversations in favor of maintaining a positive personal image. So, politics and popularity before results.

2. The millennial influence.

As the workplace gets younger, norms and expectations change accordingly. Gen Y, having grown up in a more sheltered environment, getting praise and recognition, will often get hurt when it just isn't offered. They're also not used to critical feedback and can resent it when it's offered up. Since accountability is inherently critical, it's a behavior that millennials just are less attuned to.

Finally, the third reason is more fundamental.

3. Free riding.

In social cooperation studies, there's a phenomenon called free riding, where some group members coast and therefore benefit from the hard work of others. No surprise in a high-performing teams, these free riders are not allowed to free ride. They're held accountable for their performance. Of course, the way this happens in these cooperative, contributing groups is somebody needs to hold the free riders accountable. Somebody needs to be willing to pay the personal price of low social support. Somebody needs to take on the thankless job of being the sheriff.

So there's been a move to a more personality-based management ethic, the millennial influence, and the high social cost of holding people accountable. In the face of all of this, how does an organization overcome this aversion to accountability?

Here's a simple Tool we call the Co-Accountability Triad that will help open up a dialogue and provide some cover for the sheriff.

Think of three points of a triangle, with the sheriff and delinquent at the base of the triangle, and then at the apex, the deputy.

In a normal course of events, it falls to the sheriff to hold the delinquent accountable. I, as the sheriff, am expected to hold you, the delinquent, to account. To compassionately but firmly remind you of the commitment that you didn't meet.

However, in my moment of weakness, perhaps I fail to do so. I decided either consciously or subconsciously that it's easier for us to get along. In those moments, the deputy can help by reminding the sheriff of his or her duty to hold the delinquent to account. In this way, the social cost to the sheriff is dispersed because the deputy now shares some of the burden.

The deputy acts from a place of neutrality in a way that neither the sheriff nor the delinquent can. Here, she opens up a space for dialogue about the importance of accountability that is less fraught with the emotions of shame or guilt that accompanies such accountability scenarios in the first place.

It's important to note that the role of the deputy is not to help the sheriff gang up on the delinquent.

This would, of course, serve no useful purpose. The role is to offer support and reinforcement as needed about the importance of holding one another accountable to their commitments as a principal means of accomplishing team goals.

Over time, the social cost for playing the role of the sheriff is diminished because their behavior becomes the norm, and the once-normal behavior — giving delinquents soft landings in the comfort of their excuses — is truly identified for what it is: victimhood. Gradually, a culture of accountability takes root.

In the tumbleweed town called accountability, the sheriff can't do it alone.

It's hard and tiring work, and even the quickest draw slows with overuse. Everyone needs to step up and be a deputy from time to time.


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