Generating ideas, connections, and action

Leadership and Accountability: What if we’ve got it wrong?


Last week I had a fascinating conversation with my seat mate on a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, Matt P.d. Brown, founder of a company called Big Boing and expert in play. He left me with a number of provocative ideas (I actually pulled out a notebook and pen). Here is my favorite: acknowledging effort increases student risk taking while focusing on achievement or personal qualities actually decreases risk taking behavior. I checked it out when I got home. Researchers Mueller and Dweck found that “children who were praised for their effort showed more interest in learning, demonstrated greater persistence and more enjoyment, attributed their failure to lack of effort (which they believed they could change), and performed well in subsequent achievement activities. Rewarding effort also encouraged them to work harder and to seek new challenges.”

Could this be true of adults as well?  Are we inhibiting risk taking and innovation with our current focus on results instead of learning? If our scorecards, performance reviews, dashboards or data suggest that we are not making progress we will get no closer to our goals without the ability to extract learning from what has worked or not worked in our efforts. An important question we should be asking is whether or not we are devoting sufficient time to individual reflection and collective learning in our work; and if not, why not?

Accountability is often associated with such concepts as responsibility, answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving ( We are faced with a dilemma. Foundations are theoretically answerable to their boards (and ultimately the public) for making effective investments and organizations are answerable to their boards and foundations for (within reason) delivering the outcomes detailed in proposals. In fact this sense of responsibility may lead us to only focus on what we are fairly certain we can achieve. There is little room for proposing a wild idea that could create a breakthrough or, just as easily, fail (while of course producing some very useful learning.) The danger in the language of accountability is the potential presumption that systems are needed to enforce responsible behavior rather than stimulate learning. Do we really believe that irresponsible behavior or lack of effort are undermining our impact?  I don't.  I do believe though that we have not prioritized and set aside time for learning from our efforts. What has diminished our natural curiosity and desire to learn?

It’s also interesting to return again to research with children to understand what motivates learning, especially if we find ourselves having a difficult time giving learning its rightful place in our work lives. The good news is that we are all born with a natural curiosity and desire to learn, work hard, and master a skill. Although this intrinsic desire to learn is the most effective motivation, we often extinguish it with extrinsic systems of reward and punishment that have been created in schools (and replicated in our adult environment). Ironically research that suggests fostering motivation with extrinsic rewards or punishment was conducted with animals. (It must have been dogs because I have certainly had little success with my cat).

Intrinsic motivations are not only more enjoyable but also more likely to facilitate learning and achievement. The advice the John W. Gardner Center offers for motivating a love of learning is to value learning, effort, improvement, risk taking and caring. Leadership programs can nurture the passions the sustain commitment while creating environments for deep reflection, learning and adaption that are needed for break through change and impact. What do you think?  Is it possible that by putting more emphasis on results than learning we are sabotaging our ability to achieve breakthough results on the problems we care so deeply about?


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.