Crossword by cohdra at

Practicing Accountability

The crossword is one of my favorite pastimes.  I’m not a purist and will do most any reasonable crossword that is at hand.  I know some people won’t slum and do only the New York Times crossword.  I feel a bit like Jon Stewart, who says in the documentary Wordplay,

I am a [New York] Times puzzle fan. I will solve, in a hotel, a USA Today, but I don’t feel good about myself when I do it.

In fact, I tend to do the Los Angeles Times crosswords merely because they are available for free to print off.  I’ve been able to do the New York Times Monday to Friday puzzles recently because they appear in one of the throwaway dailies that are available when I walk down to the train in the evening.  Interestingly enough, it’s not the paper that is primarily about puzzles!

I do the crossword in pen, a habit that has elicited comment in the past.  I can’t speak for others who use pen, but I do it for two reasons.  The first is that using pen is a commitment to what you put in the crossword.  That causes me to slow down and I will solve parts of the crossword in my head, which is a good mental exercise.  The second is that pen makes me accountable for whatever I put down on the page.  I don’t know many of the answers in any given crossword.  I puzzle them out and can complete most of the crosswords that come my way.  But if I put down an answer that is wrong, scratching it out in pen is a reminder that (a) everyone makes mistakes and (b) I need to be more careful the next time!

Accountability is something that is important to me.  It’s an under-appreciated aspect of how an employee can add value.  I was talking with a colleague about this recently.  An employee had complained that they felt they were being micromanaged and the manager had offered to be more aware of their relationship, and to back off to give this employee more space.  Soon afterwards, a deadline was missed because the employee had failed to follow up.

It wasn’t a critical miss although it impacted the department’s customers, so to that extent it was a problem.  But the employee identified all of the other failure points in the system that had prevented success.  The employee said they had done their best.  That’s beside the point though – we can do our best and still miss our target.  When one is accountable, it is to take responsibility for the result and to acknowledge the missed deadline, and identify how the current best effort can be improved in the future.  From all accounts, it was a good learning opportunity because the manager and employee were able to talk about the need to escalate issues well before deadlines, to discuss what might cause the employee to feel unable to move a project forward, and so on.

Accountability and micromanagement seem to go hand in hand, although they can happen separately.  I would expect that a micro-managing situation is probably caused by a perception, true or false, that the staff won’t deliver, won’t be accountable for their actions so the manager tries to assure delivery.  But some staff may not have had the opportunity to be held accountable before, particularly if it means allowing them to fail.

For my own career, I try to be thoughtful about my accountability to others.  I think it’s sometimes called – pejoratively, as far as I’m concerned – managing up.  It involves anticipating when the activities you’re undertaking will have an impact on others, which may take the form of asking for details at the beginning of a project to providing updates or alerts as a project goes forward or goes sideways.

Like the crossword, it seems to me you have to practice accountability on a regular basis.  It will pay off to take the time to think about how actions impact others and what others need to know, and what you’re expected, or have promised, to deliver.  I think it can help to drive one’s successes, because it means you’re investing that much more thought beyond your own day to day tasks to see where you might impact the organization without having realized it.  Practicing it will make it more likely to be something you become known for, part of your reputation.  It’s a valuable trait to have.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.