8 Steps To Greater Accountability

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Behind the buzzword is a basic human value—one that can't necessarily be incentivized through traditional reward, but can be cultivated as part of a great culture.

“Accountability” has become quite the buzz word in recent years—so much so that there is now an entire industry of consultants who specialize in fostering “cultures of accountability.” These are the people who want to teach us how to use certain scripts when speaking with each other, or they come up with systems that reward people for certain behaviors and punish them for others. Many focus on creating clear organizational or “accountability” charts. And they pretty much all trumpet the cliché that “what gets measured gets done,” which has become dogma for most of us. Still, accountability issues at many companies persist.

With that lead-in, you might expect me to argue that these techniques don’t work. I will not. I believe that they can be effective in an organization—it’s just that they don’t create accountability. Instead, they create temporary conditions and results that merely mimic accountability.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, accountability is “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” But where does it come from?

I believe that accountability is a learned pattern of behavior and that most people do have the ability to learn it. In essence, though, accountability is an individual value. As with any such value, it’s personal in nature and is developed over time through a lifetime of experiences, conditioning and choices. We learn over time to believe in the concept of taking responsibility for our actions or, for example, we learn to be perpetual blamers, deflectors, fatalists, victims or people who don’t really care (though we may not always have awareness of our learnings).

When a company tells its people that they will be paid more if they engage in certain types of behaviors that are expected of them, it may get more of those behaviors; but the motivation for those specific behaviors isn’t necessarily accountability. At least for some, it’s money. Ask those same people to do something else that is important but does not have a specific economic reward or penalty, and the results may be different.

The same can be said of “measuring results.” At my company, we do it all the time (and we also use economic rewards) because it’s important. But if the idea of measuring results is to measure success or failure so that it can properly be acknowledged (either economically or just as a matter of pride), then it’s not really inspiring accountability. It’s inspiring behavior that seeks acknowledgement.

Organizational charts and performance reviews work the same way. Again, they’re important, but they motivate people to be better at their jobs, please their supervisors, get good reviews, seek advancement and keep their jobs—not authentic accountability.

When someone truly lives the value of accountability, they are committed to taking responsibility for their actions or inactions because that’s how they live their lives. It’s part of their personal belief system. Sure, they may also want to be rewarded and acknowledged, but their behavior is inspired primarily by their own personal values.

How then can we truly create a culture of accountability in our organizations if not through traditional rewards, penalties, organizational structures, performance reviews, and tricks of language? Here are some ideas to consider:

1. Modeling. Those who seek to create a culture of accountability must model fully accountable behavior in order to create an environment that reinforces learned accountability. Be honest about it. If you’re not modeling accountability, then you have no right to expect it from others.

2. Avoiding heroism. Part of modeling accountable behavior is not covering for those who are not accountable. At our company, we borrow from the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, whose first commitment is to take 100% responsibility for what we do but also to help others take full responsibility for what they do. Said differently, we try to take exactly 100% responsibility—not more and not less.

3. Focusing on human-capital strategy. Companies should focus on attracting and retaining accountable people – and on moving along those who consistently demonstrate that they do not, or are unable to, ascribe to this value. I realize that it’s hard to know whether someone is accountable at the time of hiring, but past experience and references can be quite helpful.

4. Advancing accountable people. It follows that companies should proactively advance people who demonstrate, and who model, accountability.

5. Emphasizing the concept of team. One key to promoting accountability is to promote a team-based atmosphere. When people feel like they are part of a team—one that relies on and values them—they often find themselves naturally feeling accountable. They also tend to feel safer making mistakes, which, in turn, enables them to be honest about making them.

6. Inspiring the team. In addition to creating a team-based atmosphere, it’s important to ensure that the individual team members are inspired.  A powerful mission or vision in which people individually believe they can play a role is a powerful force in stimulating accountability. I expand on this concept in How We Can Offer Greater and More Differentiated Value to Our Organizations.

7. Creating broad-based ownership through equity sharing or otherwise.  As the legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt said, “Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership.  And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.”

8. Offering personalized training. It’s possible to offer training to people in how to be accountable, but that training must be focused on stimulating individual awareness and development of our own values. We use a construct recommended in The 15 Commitments, which, in addition to the above commitment, inspires us to focus on understanding when we are acting like “victims, villains, or heroes” (a.k.a. the drama triangle) and on when we are living a life that is happening to us and is not made by us.  We also practice a commitment having to “clean agreements” with each other that we either keep or “renegotiate” as soon as we realize we cannot keep them.

Keep measuring results. Keep having honest conversations about performance. Keep using variable pay structures. These are all good things to do! Want more accountability? Make sure that it becomes a shared personal value by those from whom you seek it.

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