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Creating a Culture of Accountability

“John, I am holding you accountable for this getting done…”

“Who’s accountable for this?!”

These are phrases that you might here in any workplace.    Unfortunately, they are most likely to drum up a sense of fear or anxiety in others, rather than confidence and initiative.

Organizations have struggled with creating a culture of accountability for years.    Engagement surveys continue to show that many employees are dissatisfied in their jobs.   Studies also show that, typically, people don’t leave their organization, they “leave their boss”.   So, clearly there is a personal disconnect that is undermining performance.

Especially in the public sector but also in private industry, there is a sense of poor accountability.   In a 2013 AMA Enterprise study, leaders recognized a significant lack of accountability on the part of employees.   21 percent of respondents stated that accountable employees comprise up to 50% of the workforce.

The reality is, having a culture where people take ownership and honour commitments, is critical to organizational success.   If done well, a culture of accountability would actually be a differentiating factor – and lead to competitive advantage – given that most organizations struggle with accountability.

This article examines three aspects:

(i)             What is accountability

(ii)            What impedes accountability; and most importantly

(iii)           How to develop a thriving culture of organization-wide accountability

What is “Accountability”?

There are varying definitions of accountability but they all have similar themes.   These include:  taking “ownership” (personal responsibility); showing initiative; honouring commitments; doing what needs to be done without having to be told; holding oneself to a high standard; being empowered.

Further research surfaces the following:

“Ownership is about taking initiative and doing the right thing for the business.  It’s about taking responsibility for results and not assuming it’s someone else’s responsibility.  Accountability is also about follow through and getting done what you said you’d get done.   It’s recognizing that other team members are dependent on your work” (Warren Tanner, March 21, 2016 – Make Accountability a Core Part of Your Culture)

What Impedes Accountability?

For many, a lack of accountability is an employee problem.   Managers cite the declining work ethic and a lack of loyalty.   The solution is to set goals, measure success, and manage performance as needed.

But what if there is more to it than this?   What if a lack of accountability is also a leadership problem?

Jonathan Raymond, in his October 13, 2016 article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “Do You Understand What Accountability Really Means”, notes…

“Usually we make the mistake of holding one or both of these hidden beliefs:

  • We have a deeply held association between accountability and punishment – instead of considering it a tool to help people unlock their highest self.
  • We have a deeply held assumption that accountability is a one-off event – rather than thinking it’s a long-term personal conversation between manager and employee.

Randy Pennington, in his September 1, 2015 article in HR Magazine entitled, “Building a Culture of Accountability”, suggests that a different mindset is needed.

He writes, “The difference between leaders who inspire ownership and those from whom employees merely trade time for money has less to do with strategies and techniques than it does with the mindset with which they approach their responsibilities.  The best leaders are guided by the following beliefs:

  1. Employees want to do a good job and succeed.
  2. Discipline should be taught and sustained rather than used to mandate compliance.
  3. Relationships – not position – are the ultimate tool for influencing the performance of others.

Henry Evans, in his book “Winning with Accountability” cites two reasons for a lack of accountability.  He writes:

  1. “Historically, accountability has been maintained through external control.   A goal is set between a manager and his or her subordinate, and the manager’s job is to hold the other person accountable.
  2. Secondly, accountability is determined at the back end of the process.    If the goal is accomplished in the eyes of the manager, then the other person has been accountable.”

He suggests, for accountability to really take hold, it must be internally driven and front-end loaded.

Let’s look at how that can be done…

Developing a Culture of Accountability in Your Organization

Traditionally, as noted, accountability has been driven through external systems and controls.

Organizations continually strive to improve their performance management systems so there is alignment between strategy and goals, and there is clarity between manager and employee on important objectives and related key performance indicators (KPI’s).

This is needed and certainly part of the equation that is required for accountability.

But history shows that it is not enough.   There must also be internal drivers within the individual such that employees feel motivated to perform, even if left on their own.  Ultimately, for accountability to succeed, there has to be a linkage between systems and people.

Let me explain.   In much of my work, I use a tool called the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI), which illustrates the core “motivational value system” (MVS) of people and their relative focus in three critical motivational “ingredients”:  Process, People, and Performance. 

In other words, we all have a desire to have a plan, help others, and achieve results – but the relative importance of these three drivers, understandably, varies from person to person.   That is why “person A” might go into social work and be very satisfied helping others, while “person B” might prefer to work alone in a cubicle designing a clear process.     Person A sees the value in having a clear process and person B understands the importance of helping others, but the relative importance they place on these two activities is different.

Key to motivation is understanding people’s intrinsic motivators, and then assigning tasks and communicating in a way that links to these motivations.   At their core, employees must see a meaningful purpose in what is being expected of them, for them to truly engage and be accountable.

Personal Strengths Publishing Canada has an innovative program – Core Strengths, Accountability by Choice – which teaches the seven motivational value systems of people, and the 28 related core strengths that associate with these value systems.     In this program, participants learn:

(i)             The core motivations of people in regards to People, Performance, and Process

(ii)            One’s current approach to engaging others and how to broaden one’s approach by choosing to use appropriate strengths, in the right way, at the right time.

(iii)           How to prevent conflict, and how to defuse conflict early so that goals and targets are achieved.

(iv)          Applications of key learning to actual workplace challenges where accountability is weak or lacking

(v)           How to take a balanced approach to leadership that leverages the core motivations of others and builds organization-wide accountability.

About the author: Robert Harris is a highly experienced negotiator who has worked with union – management and other groups throughout North America to teach skills and tools to achieve improved negotiated results and maintain healthy working relationships. Robert has written articles in the business press that relate to interest based and power based negotiating. He is President of Robert Harris Resources Inc. and can be contacted here or directly at (905) 466-3083.