THRIVERS is taking a short break during the summer and we're looking forward to releasing more episodes soon!

EP 30: Breaking the “Accountability” Stigma

September 7, 2023

Show Notes

What do you think of when you hear the word, “accountability”?

For most people, it immediately brings to mind all the negative aspects of accountability, namely being held responsible for a mistake. This limited view of the word creates a tension between holding folks “accountable” and allowing them to learn.

What if this understanding of accountability isn’t just limited, but detrimental? (Spoiler alert: it is.)

In the newest episode of THRIVERS, Tucker and Sarah explore the benefits of embracing continuous learning as an essential facet of organizational accountability. They explore the meanings of accountability and learning. Then they take it a step further and question if those two things are actually different or opposed to each other at all. 

Tucker and Sarah’s conversation springs from an article written by Amy Edmondson, a professor and researcher at Harvard, who introduced a radical shift in perspective—viewing goals as hypotheses. This simple yet profound change in viewpoint encourages organizations to be more adaptable, understanding, and genuinely responsible.

Drawing inspiration from the article and backed by findings from a Bridgespan report, they cover:

Understanding the reasons behind missed objectives, creating space for learning, and strategy realignment.
How pauses and introspection can lead to more genuine accountability, allowing organizations to reassess and adapt.
Instead of fearing mistakes, organizations should embrace them as learning opportunities, continuously iterating to enhance their strategies and drive meaningful change.

Tune into this episode for an enlightening exploration into redefining accountability and emphasizing the power of continuous learning to help organizations stay both adaptable and responsible.

Listener Links/Resources:
Amy Edmonson – Learning from Failure –

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Tucker: Hey everyone. Welcome to THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. I am your host, Tucker Wanamaker, the CEO of Thrive Impact. Our mission is to solve nonprofit leader burnout. It is the enemy of creating positive change, and we want to connect you with impactful mission-driven leaders and ideas so that you can learn to thrive in today’s nonprofit landscape.
So important, and I’m joined here by my co-host as usual, Sarah Fanslau our Chief of Impact. Sarah, will you kick it off today? Let us know, what are we talking about today? What do we wanna get into hash through, discuss on our podcast today.
Sarah: Yeah. So today we wanted to talk a little bit about accountability and in the context of learning.
I think Tucker, we’ve been noticing lately that there seems to be a tension between holding folks “accountable”, and allowing them to learn. And so I think what we wanna unpack is: What are those two things? Are they actually different? Are they opposed? And maybe how do we need to redefine accountability so that it actually centers learning rather than seeing, seeming opposed to it?
Tucker: Man, even just hearing you say that, I was feeling this the word accountability like there’s a tension there, right? Because we hear from sometimes political statements or, public statements that are out there. We need to hold them accountable.
Which feels like a slap, like they did something wrong and therefore we need to hold them accountable. And yet then we also still use this language around, we wanna hold people accountable to what it is that we all are saying that we are doing and moving towards. But yeah, it feels punitive.
Just even using the word, it feels punitive.
Sarah: It does. It’s like I’m gonna be on the… It’s like you’re deciding I’m gonna be on the hook for this thing, and if it goes well, that’s great, and if it goes poorly, it’s my fault. That’s like what, me being the “A”, it’s almost like a scarlet “A” in most organizations.
And we worked with a few recently where there’s definitely this piece from folks and sometimes boards where it’s like, our job is to hold the staff accountable, the executive director accountable for results in the organization.
Tucker: Again, like it just… That gets this feeling of we need to control and make sure that they’re doing the right work.
Which I think I was… As we’ve put together a newsletter and we’ve been working on some content around this in particular. And, you had said something when you were editing my post because I was writing a story of impact around some of the work that we’ve done and really what we’ve been learning.
And you said, let’s see, what was the comment? I wanna read it. It said, “The thing that’s missing for me below in your post is that, both sides, the board and the staff…” Because I was writing about a particular workshop series that we did with an organization, what we were learning through it.
She said, “Is that they both think that what they are doing is right.” The board has a fiduciary responsibility. They’re trying to make sure the organization is doing the good work. And that’s not wrong. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the issue is not the heart behind that.
The issue is the how of what that is. The how of how it’s being done. Although, again, as you keep using that word, I know this phrase that we use, I don’t even know where it comes from, but, “The words create worlds.” And even when you just say the word accountability or I wanna hold people accountable, it doesn’t feel learning-oriented.
It feels punitive-oriented. It’s like if you screw up, we’re gonna hold you accountable. Which does not support learning.
Sarah: Yeah, totally. Yes. And there is this blog that I quote in. The content that you’re talking about that says, “’accountability’ calls to mind being on the line at the forefront of an issue in the workplace. It often comes with that kind of shiver. We think of the negative aspects of accountability being held culpable for a mistake.” I think that’s what it is. And yet, I think oftentimes when we go to that mistake side of it, then we pull back from the learning side.
Because it means it’s not safe to make mistakes. There’s no safety there. Yeah, so one of the things I really love that this article says is that we want to almost redefine accountability a little bit and put it more, less around, “Sure. I’ll take ownership of it if I make mistakes.” To being about potential and ownership.
With the core question being, what can you and your people… What can I do to achieve the desired results? What can we do together to get where we wanna go, and what do we need to learn along the way in order to get there?
Tucker: Yeah. But maybe we can just not use that word accountable.
Oh, just it gives the shivers. They literally said that in that blog post. I’ve been wrestling around with that within Thrive too. What is the word we want to use? Like performance, eh, accountable, we do want people to be accountable.
We even use that in our language. Although we say like you’re the “A” on something. So like Sarah’s the “A” on program and impact. Which means that she’s accountable for that department. But we actually don’t even use the word accountable, although we know what it means, but we use the word “A” and I’m wondering if that’s, that was a little bit of purpose for us.
Like you’re the “A” on this and we call our team the “A” team and things like that. And we’re, I think we’re trying to redefine that too, right? Of what are we held accountable for? Is it results? Is it learning? Is it both?
Sarah: Yeah. I think this is where it does get tricky because honestly, in some ways it has to be both.
And you know the other article that I found recently that I really love, it’s actually a little bit of an older one from. The Bridgespan group, but it’s looking at the culture of learning and accountability. It’s actually the title of the article is, Creating a Culture of Learning and Accountability.
And as I was thinking about this topic, I was looking for research around this. I was like, what does it mean for these two things to go together? And they did this piece of work where they looked at the results of. The practice of more than a hundred nonprofit organizations.
And what this study found was three core gaps that are preventing nonprofits from realizing the full potential of organizational learning. And I think these, some of these really help to thread the needle between like we still have to be responsible for doing things and maybe we can learn into them.
And one of them is about, and they’re not rocket science to be totally honest with you. One is about setting and communicating goals. And just like identifying measurement and learning as a top organizational priority, communicating around the benefit and avoiding jargon.Making it clear what you’re doing and what folks can expect.
The second one is creating incentives. And this is about integrating measurements into job descriptions. Making learning part of people’s work from the get-go.
The second thing was about supplementing by recognizing and rewarding invisible ways. So like if somebody’s doing great at using data and learning to improve their practices, calling that out and calling that up. And the third piece around creating incentives was recasting good failures as learning opportunities. We’ve talked about this a lot, but the idea here is that staff lose motivation if they perceive colleagues are unfairly punished.
For trying something that failed. And so they talk about distinguishing good failure, which is experimentation from bad failure or deviance from prescribed practice, which I think is really interesting and is getting into threading that needle. What is good failure and what is maybe not as good failure.
Tucker: Sarah, I love what you’re saying and I’m grateful for, some of the frame that, that Bridgespan article, which of course we’ll put in the show notes. We have multiple articles that we’ll put in the show notes for you today. But how do we do this? Again, I think continually about… I know I brought him up so many times, Peter Senge’s work and he talks about that we don’t even know… We’re the fish that don’t even know we’re wet.
We’ve been so ingrained in this space of accountability and performance to results. That has hampered us. And again, as Peter Senge says, it has destroyed our people. Based on his mentor had said that too. And so I’m curious what are… How do we do this? When we’re talking about creating incentives for learning, sometimes the getting slapped for something or the punishment can not always be so blatant, but it can be felt in a meeting.
Where it’s, “Oh, okay, you made a mistake.” It’s almost like a social slap in a sense. Where you know, it’s which is where us as leaders, which all of you who are listening to this are because you have influence over your organization.
We need to be reinforcing this learning in our very behaviors. And so I’m curious, what are some, I know we’ve talked about behaviors that reinforce learning quite a few times, and that’s a few podcasts already that we’ve done that with. But what are some structures that people can do to create incentives for learning?
Like how do we celebrate learning? How do we celebrate some of these failures? And not just frame them, but like, “Hey, thank you for bringing those forward as fast as possible, even if they were small and seemingly insignificant.” What are some of the things or ideas that you have around that?
Sarah: I think one of the examples in this report that I just mentioned I think is a really helpful one of, on a monthly basis, looking at who’s bringing data and learning forward and support of shifting or adjusting their work and recognizing them and sharing that learning is a really, I think, simple idea in many ways.
I remember back in my last organization, I hired a woman I had worked with before, a real data person, an evaluation person, and she created this awesome Excel spreadsheet that helped us look at numbers differently. And I could have been like, I didn’t ask you to do that.
And instead it’s like, “Wow. That’s awesome work. Let’s look and learn from that.” So I think one of the things from a leader’s perspective is not being afraid of the information or what’s gonna come from the learning. And I think a lot of times it’s the leaders have fear. We have fear because we’ve decided where we’re going a lot of the time.
And oftentimes maybe we’ve co-created that with others, but we’ve decided where we’re going. We’ve got metrics to achieve. We have limited resources, so we can’t do anything else. And then somebody comes with a new idea or learning that could take us off track. And at least for me, that often causes like fear.
Fear of how that’s gonna destabilize the direction that we were heading in. And I think part of what leaders need to do is, celebrate learning when it comes up, but also just step back and recognize that we can learn without deciding to do, immediately. because I think it’s actually the doing that causes leaders fear.
Tucker: Yeah. I am also noticing there’s an article that Amy Edmondson did on Strategies for Learning from Failure, and she had a really good example. And I know we even I’m thinking about this even for our A reports that we have for the A’s as we mentioned earlier for within our organization.
And it’s a story that actually comes out of Boeing, but he said, What they did is they were trying to figure out how to institute a new system for detecting failures much earlier on before they become catastrophic in the sense. He started asking managers to color code their reports, green for good, yellow for caution, and red for problems.
Which is, a lot of times that can be a common technique. And at his, at some of his first few meetings, all the managers coded their operations in green and he is like, “I don’t know if you guys remember, but we lost several billion dollars last year. Is anything not going well?” And then after, and it says in the article, it’s great, “After one tentative yellow report was made about a serious product defect that would probably delay a launch this guy responded to the deathly silence that ensued with applause. And after that, the weekly staff meetings were full of color.”
It was like nobody wanted to be the first person to put it out there. All things are good. We’re fine. But it’s really a fear-based mechanism. It’s a trauma response almost. To it’s all green. Like how many of us, when we think about our reports to our board as an ED, or our reports to even donors, or our staff reports up to the ED.
How many of our reports are all green? Even though they’re not actually all green. And it’s almost this like radical honesty and again, creating those, that space where you as a leader, if you are, if you’re a manager over people or a manager of people… I’m trying to get out of using language by the way, that’s top-down. But over versus of people. I don’t know that’s a thought I’ve been thinking about is like thinking about our language anyway.
But if you’re a manager of people and you’re facilitating and guiding a group or a team of people into the type of impact you’re trying to have, what are the ways that you can incentivize through either social ways, of acknowledging the courage for somebody to put a yellow on their report as an example that I just gave.
And embed that into the process so that way, and maybe helping people even co-create, I was thinking about this, Sarah. What if we created a space to help us to literally say what failures have we had this week? Maybe it’s like a part of our regular process of exploring what mistakes did we make or what did we learn from, or at the very least maybe us co-creating a definition of what we even think failure is in the first place.
So those are some different thoughts that I was curious about of ways to start to shift because it’s such a different operating system than what we’ve all been used to. It’s again, that water we’ve all been swimming in that we don’t even realize we’re wet. It takes some time to start to get used to it, and it probably feels clunky half the time.
We’re not quite sure. Imagine the first board report that you’re bringing to your board. That wasn’t all roses, for those of you who have done that.
Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. I love that. And I think, clearly here at Thrive, at the start of many of our meetings, we start by asking wins, reflections, and learnings.
And we do that both in our internal meetings and with our partners. And oftentimes the learnings are from places we didn’t think we did the best. There are things we think we could have done better. And by habitualizing that I think one we learn a lot faster. But then two, I think to your point, it reduces the psychological, the burden or the fear because we do it all the time.
Which means it must not be that big of a deal.
Tucker: And Sarah, I wanna appreciate something you did with one of our partners the other day. We did this question and you let a really good significant amount of silence be there. I was watching you too and to the point… And I’ve grown in my deep appreciation of silence.
And even I was starting to be like… I was starting to feel it and you just held that silence. And boy was that silence so helpful because some of the deeper learnings from that side of the equation really emerged from the partner. And I thought, man, was that such an effective use of silence.
And so that was one of the things I was thinking about if you’re facilitating a meeting of your team or you’re a guide for your team and you bringing them together around reporting or things like that, Using silence as a really effective tool. When you ask, a tougher question or maybe it is just around what have you learned on the positive and what have you learned on the things that you might wanna shift or change, and letting that silence let the things bubble up to the surface can be a really powerful tool in helping people to have more of that courage to bring it out.
Sarah: Yeah. I love that. I love that. And I think, one of the things you brought up a minute ago that I think is so… We often don’t realize when we’re thinking about, and we’re going for the all greens, part of what we’re not allowing to have happen is for the world to tell us how we need to change.
So for example, if in one area we’re not achieving, instead of trying to make it seem like we are, there’s a learning there maybe about who we are and who we need to be serving instead. And by just painting it as we’re doing well, we’re actually not listening to the data that might help us become more impactful and effective as an organization.
And I’ll give you an example. At my last organization there was a big desire to expand. Expand, expand, expand. And I, every year we’d look at the numbers of new sites, and we consistently really weren’t expanding. And there was some data on the experience side that suggested we really needed to focus there.
And so I went and said here, “Look we’re here. From a number of sites perspective, and we’re here from an experience and outcomes perspective.” And I said specifically, “I’m not super interested in the big expansion, I am super interested in the really deep experience, and that’s where we’re gonna focus our time.”
And so I think oftentimes as leaders, we don’t realize that the “failure data” is helping us tell a story maybe about where we need to go or where we don’t need to go. And we need to listen to that. We need to listen to it.
Tucker: In this article by Amy Edmondson, she was saying, “Why is…” She was talking about failure analysis. And she said, “Why is failure analysis often shortchanged?”
She said, “Because examining our failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant and can chip away at our self-esteem, left to our own devices, most of us will speed through or avoid failure analysis altogether. Another reason that analyzing organizational failures requires inquiry and openness. Patience and a tolerance for casual ambiguity. Yet managers typically admire and are rewarded for decisiveness, efficiency and action versus thoughtful reflection. That is why the right culture is so important.”
And I love how she’s hitting on this…Which we’ve talked about rhythms of learning which are rhythms of thoughtful reflection in some ways.
Is let’s look back, and I know in especially really social entrepreneurial cultures or entrepreneurial cultures, There’s such a… Or in really in strong mission driven cultures, there’s such a drive for the future. There’s such a drive for the, almost like what you were saying, like the expansion.
Let’s go there. It’s like charging that hill of that mission or that impact. There’s people that need us, let’s go. But go has this implication of forward versus pausing to notice what’s been and having these constant iterative spaces of thoughtful reflection on our past.
And so I think on one side it’s, as she was saying, it’s emotionally unpleasant sometimes to look at that. But also think in a, from a culture perspective is we don’t give space for thoughtful reflection. That’s why I love that we do have that rhythm that you were talking about with literally every one of our meetings almost, which is learnings, wins, and progress.
And so how can, how might we create some of that space? Hence like the use that you had of that silence the other day. These spaces of pausing and reflecting, like we don’t learn from our experiences as a dear mentor of mine says, Jon Berghoff, we don’t learn from our experiences. We learn by reflecting on our experiences.
So that seems like another really important factor involved in, and you can do that at the very beginning of your meetings, like what we do, like what Sarah was just talking about earlier. And giving that space to let us to just go into that possibly emotionally unpleasant area and helping to give people the safety and the courage to unearth that, that stuff, because it’s already weighing on us anyway.
These things are already heavy weights and we’re already mulling about them in our minds and what that… I feel like the more and more we don’t let some of those things come out, it actually is perpetuating a space of isolation. It could be perpetuating, more loneliness in the workplace too.
Sarah: I was just gonna say yes, I completely agree. Because we think, oh, we’re the only one feeling that way. And I think the reality is these silences and these pauses are to both answer questions large and small, right? They’re both about what are we actually doing here and should we exist? I know we’re working with an organization, or we worked with one who is having that conversation right now around.
Should we exist? What do we need to turn into? And I think unless we do that really deep self-reflection, we just keep, we’re wheels on the train. We’re wheels on the track. And If our goal is to have a positive impact, that’s not good enough. We can’t just keep going. We need to stop and ask those questions about what we’re doing here, why we’re doing it, and how we may be able to change for the better, and then allowing ourselves the safety to try something new.
If that’s what needs to happen.
Tucker: And you’re hitting on another point that Amy actually brings up in her article, which is Promoting Experimentation. And it’s another way of thinking about this from a perspective of strategically producing failure. Like it’s not only are we going wanting to reflect on failure, but actually let’s strategically produce real failure at the right places and at the right times through experimentation.
And in all reality, a lot of this, a lot of our work. If we think about our, our, the impact we’re trying to have in the world, the outcomes of our work, our own logic models, and our theories of change. In all reality, most of these are really hypotheses. They’re hypotheses that we’re trying to, that we need to test, explore, understand, rework, like we need to, sometimes if we really look at it, Our entire organization is just one big systematic experimentation.
Exactly. And so how can we craft that on a more, granular and a specific level where we’re creating real pilots around updating, we wanna test our 2.0 version, or we want to test this way of being able to work with young people, or we want to test this, and here’s our hypotheses or our hypothesis around this.
And there’s a good chance that we may or may not achieve that and like setting that out from the beginning with your board, with your donors with… I’m curious how we can actually do that on a regular basis too.
Sarah: Yeah, I love that. I love that. This third piece in the Bridgespan report around learning the third core category is developing effective processes, and they found that only 40% of organizations believed their processes were effective for encouraging learning.
And I think that’s a really big deal. And so they talk about making the process of learning as effortless as possible. Like figuring out what’s getting in the way and slowing folks down from learning and removing those barriers. They talk about building in time and space for learnings, the rhythms we’ve talked about, and then starting small.
Starting small. And so they use this term, which I love that they say it takes time to go from a “Instinct-driven” to a data-driven organization or learning driven organization and I love that. I think so many of us have been in an instinct place. We need to move to a learning place.
And that doesn’t mean we’re not achieving results, but it means that we’re setting measurable goals, that we communicate well, we’re learning toward them, and we’re adjusting them as necessary. I think that’s what it really means for me.
Tucker: Which brings about the results that we’re, as we were saying at the very beginning, the goal of having the results that we want around revenue and ultimately around impact as impact driven leaders is honorable goal. That’s what the board want, right? With that organization that we were talking about earlier today or earlier in the podcast. That’s great. What we’re really hitting on is the how of how we go about that.
That if we focus so heavily on those results in this space of accountability, we hold people almost to the letter of that it creates, actually, it goes against what you actually are wanting in the first place. Which is why this, how, and this approach is so important to be able to iterate as fast as possible.
I remember I was… There’s a the old famous, “If you wanna be a professional at anything, you have to put in your 10,000 hours.” And somebody reframed that and he said, I can’t remember who it was…. Maybe it was, I don’t remember who it was… But he said it’s not about 10,000 hours, it’s about 10,000 iterations.
It’s not just activities and hours, but iterations, which implies, looping. It implies doing, trying, reflecting, rejiggering, going back again. And so how do you as an organization get in those 10,000 iterations around this type of work?
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. And I love the piece.
I think now as we’re talking, I think, the accountability piece, people are holding them, sometimes they’re being held to “being accountable,” and sometimes they’re holding themselves to that letter of the law spirit that you were just saying before. And I think both of those are a problem or a challenge.
And in some ways I’m curious if it’s not. A fear of looking ahead to see what’s there. And what might need to change or adjust. I think so much of it is fear-based. And we know that, that fear-based cultures have lower performing teams. That’s as simple as it gets.
Tucker: Hundred percent. There’s so much data behind that too.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, if you’re a board or even a manager, what do you do? You can’t just not set goals. And I’ll tell you one thing that I’ve done is, at the start of each year, in my last organization, we would use the previous year’s data to set goals.
For a lot of different things, including the type of folks we wanted to serve, where we wanted to grow. The participation and activities, a whole set of metrics. We’d set, in July before the start of the new school year and midyear around December, we’d look at where we are in relation to those goals.
And I would say to my team, how do we need to change or adjust these based on what’s changed around us? And sometimes we raised them, sometimes we lowered them and sometimes we kept them the same. But what that enabled us to do and staff to do was to say, the world around us changes, which means we need to change and adjust our targets as a result.
And I think that openness to saying, let’s set goals once and let’s revisit them and update them as needed, gives people that sense that we’re learning into it together and that we can adjust things as needed.
Tucker: That’s good. That’s good. I’m so appreciating this topic and I know it’s stuff that we’re continuing to deepen in our work around this.
The last thing I’ll just bring in is. The more that we can shift into this type of space, and this is one of the sentiments that this executive director, the CEO actually, that we were working with, shared with us is she said about some of our work with her was that this was so healing. She used the word healing, and I loved hearing that word.
To go back to Peter’s quote of, “The prevailing system of management has been destroying our people because it’s about control and not about learning.” I just realized we all have a lot of trauma in this space. Including myself and when this CEO, this nonprofit CEO was able to share that with us of it was so healing.
I think it’s just something important that as you’re continuing to create impact in the world, how important it is to create impact from the inside out and to create some of these conditions. Of, and I’ll use the word, to create some of these conditions of healing for people to be able to get back into who we’re meant to be as humans, which is really having an inherent joy in learning.
And that if you can make this, some of these shifts and it’s gonna be clunky, it’s gonna be awkward. I’m still learning into it myself. Sarah, you’re learning into it. So much learning that keeps happening around how do we create a culture of learning. But I think at the end of the day, what it’s doing is it’s helping to create more of a healing organization.
This is… And there are many things involved in what healing could mean. And we’re not gonna unpack that here. We’ll close out this part of the podcast, but there’s something in there that was so fascinating to hear from this CEO of saying about how this was healing for her and for her team.
And so I just wanna implore everybody out there that this work is… Does it have hard nonprofity business results? The data speaks directly to learning organizations directly have a translation into better results for what you’re looking for and how you go about that is very important.
And what we’ve been seeing through our own learning journey and through our own experiments ourselves, is that this actually brings healing to people too. And it helps you to create impact from the inside. Of your organization so that way you can have more impact on the outside. So just my last encouragement to everybody is that this is a courageous and important effort for anyone who is trying to be an impact driven organization.
Whether you’re a nonprofit, a for-profit, anywhere in between. If you’re trying to create impact in the world this is such an incredibly important piece of the puzzle that can really amplify what you’re trying to do.
Sarah: I love it. I agree.
Tucker: Awesome. We have lots of links for you in the show notes.
So we’ll put ’em, we’ll make sure they’re all, we have the Amy Edmondson article, we have the Bridgespan article, and this other blog from a website called culture about a culture of accountability. And we’ll put all those links up in the show notes.
And by the way, if this was supportive for you we’d love for you to. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts because that’s the only place I think does reviews. But I’d love for you to review wherever you’re able to review it and let us know how this is supporting you and also if it is supporting you invite you to share this out with another impact driven leader that’s out there in the world that you know of.
Because if this is something that resonated with you, there’s a good chance it probably resonates with them too. And you can help us to continue to create more impact in the world through healing our organizations and creating impact from the inside out. So thanks everyone for being here, and we’ll see you on the next show.
Bye everyone.
Sarah: Thanks y’all.