Human Capital Management

Fostering a Culture of Accountability

/ April 2, 2018

“Accountability” is a term that often gets thrown around in job descriptions, jotted down on flip charts in brainstorming sessions, and tacked on to training agendas. While we may recognize that other team members are dependent on the results of our work, we rarely stop to think about what “accountability” means in practice. And when we do, it usually has some pretty negative implications.

After all, isn’t accountability the readiness to be held accountable (i.e. blamed) if things don’t go right? “Sign me up!”…said no one ever.

In reality, “blame” is not the key component of accountability. While it’s true that being accountable and taking ownership can come with a side order of consequences, there’s certainly a better phrase that ties more closely to accountability that has the power to motivate and bring out the best in people.

That phrase is “meaningful work.”

Let’s use an example from an old professor of mine: Imagine for a minute that you’ve been tasked with moving some rocks and dirt. You have a shovel, you’re healthy & strong, and there’s absolutely nothing preventing you from doing what you’ve been asked.  Now imagine that there is a person trapped under the rocks and dirt. You are part of a rescue operation team; there’s been an earthquake, and others’ lives depend on how quickly you respond. The task has now almost completely changed based on the circumstances.

While this is an intense example, it’s similar to what happens in the workplace daily. Most organizations have a vision, mission, or purpose that is somehow tied to a real benefit or value brought to a customer or society. Yet sometimes in our day-to-day, the meaning of our work gets lost because what we’re doing doesn’t always clearly connect back to that fundamental purpose.

Creating an accountable culture involves reconnecting roles in the organization to that core purpose that drives your organization and connects you to your client, customer, or society. It’s vital to note that people, no matter how skilled, smart, or driven, are not inclined to be accountable to that which holds no meaning.

Another element to creating an accountable culture involves both senior leaders and management’s response to less-than-stellar results. As a senior leader or manager, you are often in the position of delegating work to your team. Sooner or later, you’ll assign someone to a task, and they won’t get it done. How you respond and how timely the response is to that scenario will define whether you are building or eroding a culture of accountability on your team.

The following are your response options:

Option 1: Ignore
Many managers or even teammates will simply ignore a situation where another team member doesn’t do something they were asked to do or falls short of expectations. In some cases, this is because that teammate or manager is uncomfortable with conflict, is hoping that things will turn around, and may not want to “stir the pot” with someone who they consider to be a peer or friend. As a manager, you likely want to get along with all of your direct reports, and addressing the situation could compromise that ideal scenario.  By ignoring the situation however, what you are unintentionally saying is that the work isn’t meaningful, and that it doesn’t matter whether or not it gets done.

Option 2: Overreact
A flip side to ignoring the problem is blowing up over it. If you take the situation and make it personal or become angered about the work not getting done, it can come out as passive aggression or ruling by fear. This reaction places a focus on “blame” and   the negative consequences of not doing the work rather than the intrinsic value of the work itself.

Option 3: Address
Every delegated task or expectation should have a time frame or a metric. When that time passes and the task is not done or is not done up to expectations, the manager or teammate needs to acknowledge it immediately, scheduling a time to address it in detail. Before jumping to conclusions, use that scheduled time to seek to understand what went wrong. Was the team member unable to complete the task or goal because of something outside of their control? Were your expectations unrealistic? Did they make an effort, or did they not even make an attempt?

If you can show that the task was important and can commit to supporting the process of getting it done, you will reinforce the meaning of the task while also supporting the individual in developing the skills that they need to be successful. Even though holding people accountable can come with that “side order of consequences”, it’s more about connecting each person on your team (whether your peer or direct report) to the idea that their work is valuable, and so are they!

For some additional tips and resources as it relates to creating a culture of accountability, check out this article I wrote on  holding effective accountability conversations.