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Accountability – what can we learn from Australia’s sporting shame?

The Lime Group | Articles


If you live in Australia, or any other cricket-loving nation, you’d have to be living in a cave not to have noticed recent scandalous events. For everyone else – stay with me! I promise, it’s interesting even if you don’t care a jot about cricket.

After a particularly fractious and ill-tempered series, the Australian cricket team has been caught cheating in an international match. Not just minor cheating but tampering with the ball in a manner that’s strictly outlawed and widely seen as shocking. Even worse – the team’s captain, who occupies a revered position of trust and admiration across the nation, was directly involved in planning it. It was premeditated, carried out in full view of the cameras and seems to have been delegated by the senior players to the team’s most junior member (in an act referred to by many as “throwing him under a bus”).

The expression ‘it’s just not cricket’ has never been more apt. The nation feels let down and is looking for swift, decisive action to be taken on the guilty. People want to see ‘justice done’ and the guilty held accountable for their actions. In the current febrile atmosphere of shock and anger, the sort of accountability expected seems to be pretty harsh.

As regular readers of this blog will know, the subject of accountability is dear to my heart. But what have events on the cricket field got to do with accountability in the workplace? What can we, as leaders, learn from this sorry tale?

Well, in my view, quite a lot…

Accountability is vital if we are to build organizations where our people perform and work together passionately to deliver our vision. ‘Accountability’ is basically another way of saying “everyone cares and understands enough about what we’re trying to achieve to be motivated to do everything they can to succeed.” And certainly not engage in bad behavior that undermines our values.

When looked at this way, what’s happened in cricket isn’t really so very different from the ongoing scandals in banks, airlines, social media companies, tech start-up, big pharma… When scandals break, for a moment we see all too clearly the shameful gap between what we set out to do and what has actually been allowed to take place. The trick is to make sure that everyone consistently chooses to do the right thing – both to perform and to avoid transgressions out of a misguided sense of what ‘great performance’ looks like. In sport, that might be winning by cheating. In business, that might consist of getting results by bullying people, exploiting customers or anti-competitive practice.

In the previous instalment of this blog series*, I pointed out that accountability can’t be attacked head-on, because all that achieves is forcing people to comply (at best) rather than truly and passionately do their best. Instead, we need to focus on the underlying factors that cause people to want to do the right thing.

Let’s look closely at what we need to get right and what the currently unfolding cricketing scandal can teach us:

1.          Inspiration – people do the right thing because they feel personally inspired by our vision.

Although the facts are still emerging, it’s already clear that numerous members of the Australian cricket team were involved in the recent unsporting activities. Where an advantage can be gained by doing the wrong thing, people have to ardently wantto do the right thing, especially when they’re under pressure. That depends absolutely on inspiration. If they believe to their cores in the vision and values, about why they are part of the company/team in the first place, it becomes unthinkable to do the wrong thing. In this light, the rich history and traditions of Australian cricket – to which we want every player to aspire – are not really very different from our mission and vision as organizations. These visions need to act as beacons to guide and motivate us – and we, as leaders, need to make sure it feels like that every day. On the other hand, if the captain or senior leaders start acting badly, people feel disconnected, lost and susceptible to demotivation (or more unsavory visions of ‘success’)…

2.         Clarity – people are helped to do the right thing by organizations that ensure they understand what is expected of them and provide them with the right tools do deliver.

From the outside, and judged with hindsight, it’s often obvious what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ look like. But when you’re a member of a team, whether in an organization or a sporting context, people create their own norms and expectations. We quickly come to see things like the people around us, and follow well-established precedents/norms. Before you know it, you find yourself acting and believing in things that others might see as straightforwardly wrong – without even noticing. Organizations have to make the definition of everyone’s role abundantly clear and ensure that everyone is guided to do them well.

3.         Authorship – people use their talents and passions to deliver success if they have the autonomy and freedom to make their own choices.

If we want the team to make the most of everyone’s talents and do the right thing, each individual has to be free to make choices and shape their own approach – within the team’s shared goals. Early reports suggest that pressure was brought on junior team members of the Australian cricket team to act inappropriately by the senior players. Such an environment diminishes the sense that people are able to make good choices for themselves and instead ensures that everyone either ‘dances off the cliff’ together or merely keeps quiet.

4.          Impact – people need to be able to see and feel the impact of their actions.

It’s no exaggeration to say that much of Australia is apoplectic about the actions of the cricket team. They have brought shame on themselves and, by extension, all of us. People are calling for the worst offenders to be chucked out of the team and perhaps never play again. The impact of bad behavior must be all too obvious to the team now… The public won’t be happy until harsh consequences follow for the main culprits. But, if we want consequences to form a positive and helpful part of our culture, it’s the role of leaders to make the consequences of everyone’s contributions apparent every day, in big ways and small, so that everyone can understand how well they’re doing. The positive consequences of doing great things need to be quite clear and consistently applied. And, heaven forbid, people do need to see what would happen if they transgress. Recent events might seem a little extreme, but in fact we can all learn from this.

5.          Courage – people are encouraged to behave accountably by an environment in which they’re supported to speak frankly, enabled to make brave decisions and can see that they won’t face negative consequences if they call out bad practice.

Courage is a quality that several cricketers must wish they had exhibited a few days ago. If just one person in the team had said “hang on a minute, are we really doing the right thing here?” a lot of pain could have been avoided. But it can’t just be up to individual courage. It would take considerable strength of character for an individual, especially a junior one, to stand up and do that – risking rebuke or not being selected to play again (equivalent to being fired or missing out on career-developing opportunities). What we need is an environment in which everyone knows, beyond doubt, that if they speak up, no negative consequences will follow for them. Not only that, but they’ll be believed – which is important, because before an act takes place, it might be hard to prove. This is so much more than setting up a hotline or a suggestions box – it’s about shifting the whole nature of relationships and culture.

I hope you’ll agree that there’s a lot we can learn from the Australian cricket’s team mistakes and pain. As individuals, they appear to be sincerely nice people, living in a competitive world. They have been under pressure to perform and feel embattled after a series with more than its fair share of scandals and ‘needle’. But all scandals involve nice people under pressure. And so does under‑performance…

The companies – and teams – who understand this and resolutely create an environment that supports the drivers of accountability are the ones who perform, who get the best out of everyone and in whom we can believe.

Take the time to analyze properly where you are currently excelling in terms of these drivers – and where you might have room to improve. If you would like access to the ‘Five Factors’ tool I use to assess the current state of accountability with clients, please send me a note and I’d be happy to share.

As leaders, we need to grow new muscles to inspire our people, to role model in high‑transparency environments, and to be connected without being controlling. (In the next instalment of this blog series, I’ll share examples of the practical things that can be done to strengthen these muscles). This is really the most important lesson we can take from recent lamentable events.

* To see more information on the ‘drivers of accountability’, click here to see the last installment of this blog:

If you would like to get a factual account of the cricketing scandal itself, this is a good place to look: