Accountability is the process of making an individual, or a group, aware of their responsibilities. But what does it mean to be responsible? Two radically opposed definitions are available to us.
Moving from responsibility-burden…
The word responsibility is often associated with the concept of obligation or burden, i.e. a binding condition. It is true that, whatever activity we engage in, we will always encounter imposed external data (a legal framework, a given context etc.). Responsibility is perceived as a burden when we are only aware of those elements that are not of our choosing.
However, when we make the choice to invest in a task or a relationship, a process of ownership and commitment is triggered. We are aware of our room for manoeuvre and why it is important for us to invest in a particular task or relationship. When our attention is focused on what is in our control and we choose responsibility, it becomes the measure of our involvement.
What exactly are we responsible for?
Three levels of reality and responsibility should be identified:
- Level 1 - What depends on me: my choices, my actions, my omissions, my perceptions, my emotions or my intentions.
Example: how I address my collaborator.
- Level 2 - What depends on the other: their choices, actions, omissions, perceptions or intentions.
Example: how my colleague interprets what I say.
- Level 3 - What is not dependent on me or the other person?
Example: the weather and the current economic situation.
We can only be responsible for that which depends on us (level 1), which includes how we respond to external elements (levels 2 and 3).
Not being responsible for levels 2 and 3 does not imply our disengagement from them. To be accountable is to remain in a relationship with what is not in our control and respond intentionally (e.g. I do not control how my collaborator interprets what I say, but I have the choice to engage in the exchange or to clarify certain points ...).
Empowerment is therefore about facilitating awareness of the situation we are experiencing (in the three levels) and commitment to action (level 1) in response to this context.
How to facilitate awareness and commitment
Research1 from both neuroscience and business humanities emphasises that individuals are more likely to learn and take action if they find their own answers, rather than if they are offered a ready-made solution. In other words, we feel really accountable if we ourselves have matured our awareness and made our choices. Accountability is therefore a process that starts with the individual.