The image of organizations that rely on flat hierarchies and agile structures usually sounds very similar. They invoke engagement at eye level or the chance to make an impact: With us, expertise is not locked away in departments, but rewarded with the opportunity to take action! You’ll enjoy creative leeway and quickly take on responsibility. The announcement by Bayer’s new CEO that he intended to empower the entire workforce had a similar effect. Because as he said, “the people who take the decisions are often not as close to the decision as you’d like.” (Wirtschaftswoche, April 6, 2023) The Bayer CEO wants to turn technical experts into decision-makers. All the employees are to act as if their own company were affected – like intrapreneurs. Budgets are to be abolished and employees draw up their own budgets instead. And they would then present to their peers what they need resources for: “You can fool your boss, but you cannot fool your peers” (Financial Times, June 18, 2023). However, there is a snag.
When people are trusted, they will take responsibility
To understand how an organization changes when decision-making authority and the power to take decisions are combined in one position, it is useful to borrow a concept from organizational science and distinguish between responsibility and accountability as the sociologist Niklas Luhmann suggests.
Taking responsibility is about giving others security. This is required day after day in an organizational context, i.e. whenever a decision needs to be taken where the information to back it up is not fully available. If insufficient information exists to cover a decision, what is missing has to be made up for by trust in the decision-maker.
So, it is not a question of whether the person making the decision is responsible, but of the specific situation: Can this representation be trusted? Indeed, anyone who wants to give others security has to present their decisions “in ideal form, as the finished product of their deliberations”. This can then give the others “a secure basis for their actions and thus reduce the level of uncertainty in the organization”. Organizations crave for security because it is needed to justify subsequent decisions. And so it is no small feat of responsible decision-making when the fact that a decision is only based on speculation and informed guesswork is withheld. If a decision-maker could never leave aside such uncertainties, an organization would hardly be able to take any actions.
Organizations confer accountability
Organizations have a special way of terminating this uncertainty through tying the assumption of responsibility to specific roles and making it a condition of membership of the organization that decisions taken by those who occupy these roles have to be trusted. This step, however, comes at a price. The organization now has to also demonstrate that the decisions such roles take deserve to be trusted. In this way, accountability is also given to the role.
This step transforms responsibility into accountability, as mentioned above. The distinction between responsibility and accountability is mainly accomplished through representation. Accountability is thus used “only on certain ceremonial occasions that require certain scenic artefacts by which one recognizes that the partner becomes formal”.
In an organization this representation occurs at the latest when things have to be put in writing. When an idea becomes a project and a threshold is crossed, e.g. more budget or time is needed, someone has to stand up and be counted, i.e., accept accountability in the context of demonstrating the respective needs. This is a special step because the person who accepts accountability “agrees to own up for any mistakes”. The question of whose name ends up on the paper can be debated in corresponding length and also feature some “cunning strategic maneuvering” in which roles involving accountability become the focus of a game of intrigue and much flattery in order to get those concerned to sign on the dotted line and assume accountability.
Haggling over accountability is both annoying and helpful
It is all this maneuvering around and what may be interpreted as a sycophancy compulsion that causes some organizations to consider the assumption of accountability hurdles to be too high and useless. This is understandable, as is the basic idea that there should be no harm in bringing together expertise and decision-making power in the same role. At Bayer, they hope that combining technical expertise and decision-making power will not only give them the advantage of speed, but also an improved quality of decision-making: “Decisions are made by the people who are best placed to make them, not by the boss.” If everyone is responsible for their own area, eye-level engagement should be ensured. And “peers” have to be convinced with good arguments, e.g. about obtaining more budget. Supervisors, on the other hand, might not necessarily understand these arguments because they lack the expertise. They might rely on other factors like individual presentation skills (“You can fool your boss, but you cannot fool your peers.”).
However, with the help of the responsibility-accountability distinction, you can show the benefits of separation that may have been previously overlooked – and the problems that come when separation is annulled.
Utilizing the accountability of others will speed up your work process
When specific positions in an organization are equipped with the accountability of assisting other members in specific matters, the burden on the organization is relieved in several ways. This is most easily observable in the case of positions where subject matter expertise is involved. The “organizational concentration of information and expertise” in specific positions allows other organizational members to outsource the effort required for information gathering; and more importantly, they do not need to bother with verifying the results. As the level of trust required to do this is supplied by the organization and is no longer tied to the situation or the person, this even works without the people involved in dealing with the matter needing to be known.
Mixing responsibility with accountability has some side effects
Let’s say we’re talking about the purchase of an expensive new machine that will very likely serve an organization well – even though this is not yet entirely obvious. If there has previously been a micropolitically sophisticated process to encourage someone to sign on the dotted line – including a well-orchestrated acceptance of responsibility by the subordinate that for reasons one, two and three the decision is the right one – the response from the next higher level can now be rudely abbreviated to “sounds good, but whether we should really take the plunge is up to you to decide”.
This possibility of taking the decision oneself distorts the step of taking responsibility into an inner monologue. The representation as a “flawless product” is omitted – and with that comes the omission of uncertainties. So two things happen for any members of an organization thus affected: they are not given a channel to absorb uncertainty, whereas accountability for their decisions is imposed upon them. In this case, the reflex to think that this accountability has now arrived in the right place has to be suppressed, because up till then, bad preparatory work could have simply been hidden under some supervisor’s signature. This ignores the fact that comprehensive information will never be available, but urgent decisions always have to be taken.
Assuming responsibility is suddenly decided by personal skills
What this step accomplishes, above all, is that responsibility and accountability for a decision coincide in the role of one and the same member of an organization, and only their qualities and personal skills are available to cope with it. After all, the organization has gotten itself out of any responsibility. Anything from “guilelessness to self-indulgence” can be functional in order to be capable of assuming responsibility under such circumstances. But whether this is desirable is something everyone has to decide for themselves.
That a member of an organization has nothing but their personal skills to fall back on for assuming accountability is, of course, an extreme case. In everyday life, informal things would have a regulating effect: thinking aloud during a coffee break, demonstratively reviewing the pros and cons, and informally soliciting other opinions that can at least serve as legitimation if a problem crops up. What has hopefully become clear, however, is the benefit of distinguishing between responsibility and accountability – and that organizations should consciously decide which members they want to endow with the burden of their insignia, with “generalized trust”.