ac-count-a-ble adj. 1. Subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable. 2. Capable of being explained; explicable.

(The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition, 1988.)

Did you know that’s what accountable means?

I never would have guessed that from listening to how people use the word. And I hear people use it a lot lately. It seems like the one of those management buzzwords that pops up from time to time, like “leadership” and “nimble” a few years back. When I ask, most people who use the word can’t give me a precise definition. They trail off saying, “Accountable means . . . well, you know . . . accountable!”

I suspect that accountable is used as a surrogate for other, less palatable, expressions. I’ve got my decoder ring right here, so let’s figure out what’s really behind this word.

False Definition 1: To be pressured

When you hear someone say, “You must hold him accountable,” pay attention to the emphasis the speaker puts on the words. When the there isn’t any particular emphasis and the statement is followed by some examples of what the staff members are expected to do, and the tools they have to do the job, the speaker is probably talking about setting achievable goals and tracking progress.

But if you hear particular stress on one or more words (“You must hold him accountable,” for example), the speaker may have a mental model of management that says, “people are basically lazy, and if you don’t push them, they will take their own sweet time getting anything done.” Listen, too, for what comes after the statement. If you hear that colorful phrase “hold his feet to the fire,” or the word “disappointed,” then accountableis a code word for pressure. And the speaker really means, “You must pressure him to perform.”

False Definition 2: To be blamed

Take for example, “The project manager is accountable for project success.” If you read this according to the dictionary definition, it might mean, “The project manager is responsible for reporting on the current state of the project, explaining the situation, and justifying the need for resources that will provide a reasonable chance of success.” It might also mean, “The project manager is responsible for explaining and justifying plans to achieve the project goals.” Or even, “If something goes wrong, the project manager must explain why.”

Unfortunately, I often hear “The project manager is accountable for project success,” (or it’s more obvious evil twin, “You are accountable for project success”) in situations where the chances for project success given the current situation are slim to none (and none just left town). Then it really means, “I will blame you if this project fails.”

False Definitions one and two are forms of pressure: a threat of unpleasant future consequences. Will that pressure really help? Or just make the blamer feel better?

False Definition 3: To be responsible for someone else’s mess

Ever heard this one? “The problem around here is that no one is accountable.” I usually hear this variant in organizations where the measurement or reward system is driving behavior that makes life “downstream” a misery. The problem isn’t really that people aren’t being held accountable; it is they are being held accountable for goals that are in conflict. For example, a certain project manager was held accountable for meeting a schedule. He’s now in the Bahamas enjoying his bonus for getting the project out on time. Meanwhile, the support manager is working overtime dealing with irate customers whose software is crashing. He is being held accountable for a goal (perhaps maintaining a certain customer satisfaction rating) that is nearly impossible to achieve, because the project manager had a goal to meet a delivery date, but did not have a goal to meet a quality standard. When someone says, “no one is accountable,” it probably means, “Because of the way someone else did his job, it is very hard to do the job I am accountable for. I feel like I’ve been left holding the bag.”

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Why am I making such a big deal about this? After all, accountable is only a word. And I do believe that people should be accountable for their actions. But when there’s a coded meaning involved through context or emphasis, then no one is well served. I believe that the vast majority of people want to do a good job. They may not always know how or have what they need to get the job done, but their intention is to do good work.

We will all be more accountable if we remember the true definition: The first part “subject to the obligation to report,” reminds us to report on our understanding of the task and our ability to get it done with the current resources. The second part, “capable of being explained; explicable,” reminds us to check that the task can be credibly described. When we remember the real meaning of accountable, we can stop talking in code words and get on with building solid software.

(c) 2002-2012 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, July/August 2002