Intent Blog

What is the Relationship between Control and Accountability?

Internal controls in a company are necessary. But, deliberate effort must be made to decrease the amount of controls over a period of time. For greater efficiency, productivity, agility, and creativity, companies should try to incrementally shorten decision making procedures and “flatten” the decision making hierarchy. Incrementally suspending control in this manner does however come with a health warning, if it is done too fast it can be very destructive.

If suspending controls is to have the good effects and avoid the bad, the controls have to be replaced by accountability. You remove controls in order to have accountable people. In this article I want to explain the relationship between control and accountability.

Controls in a company are not just the big things. Even something as simple as instructing an employee to run a report by you before they send it is a form of control. Put simply, controls prevent someone from making the decision on their own. A control says to a person “don’t do anything until you have been given the go ahead by someone else”.

The most important thing to bear in mind about controls is that they disable accountability. The simple truth is that you can either have control or you can have accountability but you can’t have both. When you put a control in place you shift both control and accountability one step up. You see this in a leadership context all the time. As soon as a leader tells the person to check in before sending something, they have immediately taken accountability. Accountability lies on the shoulders of the decision maker. Controls take decision making power out of people’s hand and so means you can’t hold people accountable.

One of the reasons for controls is that they safeguard the company against the untrustworthy few. What we find however is that the majority of employees are the typically “meet the standard” kind of individuals. Often what we urge is that leadership hold the untrustworthy few accountable instead of implementing controls that affect even the responsible employees.

One of the consequences of this is that people suffer consequences in companies that do not have lots of controls. In empowered environments in which leadership has deliberately suspended control you will see more dismissals than retrenchments. In highly controlled environments however you will see significantly more retrenchments than dismissals.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.