Power and Accountability: There is More to the Story

AccountabilityWhat is the relationship between accountability and power?  Commentary on the abuse of power is perennial and reflects an underlying assumption about leadership; "...leaders are expected to exert themselves in the service of the collective interest."[1]  In watching leaders I see leaders exercise a variety of postures toward power. Some fear power and shirk responsibility, some crave power and lose sight of what it’s for and who are comfortable with power and use it to serve the best interests of the corporation and their employees. Even the best leaders find that the act of serving the collective interests is complex and a minefield of competing interests. There is ample evidence to show that those leaders who fail to pursue the collective interest have disastrous impact on organizations including such things as: public embarrassment, decreased employee participation, decreased leader effectiveness, decreased employee motivation, and decreased employee performance. The reality is that "Leader self-serving behavior carries the specter of negative consequences for subordinates as well as for the organization at large."[2]

In light of this calls to greater accountability usually emerge and those calls are not without foundation. Researchers have found that accountability has a mitigating effect on high power leader self-serving actions. Recognizing that power is inherent in the leader role the researchers observed that power affects self versus group-serving behaviors. "Because high power leaders inhabit reward rich environments, they should be more likely to pursue rewarding outcomes than low power individuals, a proposition substantiated by a growing body of research."[3]

Research and experience show that possessing power impairs one’s ability to take others' perspectives into consideration and the ability to consider others' background knowledge or correctly identify their emotional expressions.  The powerful tend to view others through an instrumental lens as tools for one’s own purposes i.e., to help the powerful achieve their goals. I have observed relationships between CEOs and their managers deteriorate in the CEO’s self-serving quest to the point that manager behavior begins to constitute a drag to the accomplishment of the organization’s objectives.

Yet it is important to recognize that self-serving perspectives are not experienced as a black and white reality nor do they simply pop up out of thin air. The quest for organizational success which presumably benefits all stakeholders is the backdrop for a shift from service in the collective interest to self-serving behaviors that undermine the collective interest.  Herein is the challenge for one working from the seat of power. The shift from collective to self-interest is an evolution that occurs under pressure and always claims to have the collective interest in mind.

In one company I worked with the CEO started his tenure with clear commitment to a new day of teamwork, increased profitability, increased efficiency and customer service. He elicited innovation from the rank and file and during his first two quarters at the helm of the organization he maintained this call while also making difficult decisions needed to bring change.  It was working in every area in which the CEO was consistent to his own values. However, in those decisions in which he was inconsistent to his stated values he demanded workarounds. His mixed messages gave his managers pause. Then the management team noticed subtle changes. Executive meetings lost their regularity, decisions and adjustments were announced out of side meetings and over time all pretense of discussion melted into unilateral demands for action for the sake of profit. No one argued against the necessity of profit nor did they balk at the strategic direction of the company but the pace of change wasn't moving fast enough for the CEO and he reverted to highly directive behavior focused on ensuring his survival as CEO which he made the equivalent to the survival of the company and security of all jobs.

In all the team told me that they wish the CEO had been held accountable. Accountability does play a role in mitigating self-serving behaviors. Accountability is "the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called upon to justify one's beliefs, feelings, and actions to others."[4] Accountability has been shown to:

  • Increase judgmental accuracy
  • Promote careful decision-making
  • Increase thoroughness of information processing
  • Induce more complex decision strategies
  • Enhance a self-critical approach that implies consideration of multiple perspectives

Clearly accountability does counteract self-serving tendencies induced by power. Or is it that clear? The CEO in the story above was being held accountable of new levels of performance. In fact his meetings with the board and owners became highly spirited inquisitions into whether his plan would produce results fast enough to satisfy the risks the owners felt he was taking.

The CEO was accountable but as research had found accountability is not a panacea for all evils. Where accountability does not merge process as well as outcomes it can have the opposite of the desired effect. Where high power leaders are only held accountable for outcomes they tend to behave in ways that are less cooperative, less helpful, less truthful, and less willing to compromise in negotiation with subordinates.

This was the situation with the CEO above.  The challenge was not that he lacked accountability but that the pressure of accountability he faced focused only on outcomes.

A lack of accountability on process as well as outcomes seems to facilitate a "means justifies the end approach" and tendency to treat others as means to an end.  High power leaders who are not held accountable for process typically institute draconian work policies that dehumanize their workforce and may actually work to negatively impact performance accountability was intended to increase. The lesson is a significant one for business owners and board members. The lack of accountability on process is pandemic in small and mid size companies where owners are either still directly connected to operations or have moved out of operations into a governance role.

The big lesson for anyone with governance responsibility is this, "… process accountability can lead to increased perspective taking and more careful decision-making, a combination of process and outcome accountability appears to carry the most promise in terms of mitigating some of the negative effects of power - including the 'ethical hazard' of power."[5]

If you see your organization or company floundering or experiencing something less than flourishing, consider your accountability structures for you top leaders.  High powered leaders are the ones setting the tone of the organization’s culture.  Is it moving in the right direction? Does the overall approach to leadership and organizational culture offer a platform to sustain performance? There is little doubt that high power leaders accountable for only outcomes will hit their performance goals.  There is strong doubt however these leaders will survive to see another year or be able to sustain performance over time. But then the criterion of success often depends on the person who is viewing the outcomes.


[1] Diana Rus, Daan van Knippenburg, and Barbara Wisse. "Leader Power and Self-serving Behavior: The Moderating Role of Accountability." The Leadership Quarterly 23 (2012) 13-26.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 22.