I am convinced that a significant number of workplace performance problems can be directly attributed to one thing: a lack of accountability. I discovered this after helping to resolve thousands of employee performance problems over the past 29 years. The pattern is the same and the scenario, while colored by shades of different industries, cultures, and people, is all too familiar:
An employee who has not performed for years is tolerated by management and is not held accountable. At stake are leadership credibility, coworker morale, customer or client relationships, turnover, and a host of other workplace ills. Yet, the manager does not act.
How can we begin to fix this common organizational malady? Perhaps the answer lies in first correcting an often flawed thinking about what accountability is and is not.
Accountability: Good or evil?
Pick up any dictionary or search the web and you will likely find a definition for accountability that uses words synonymous with answerability, liability and culpability — terms that carry a negative connotation. One popular web dictionary defines accountability as “being obligated to answer for one’s actions to an authority that may impose a penalty for failure.” Webster’s definition, “subject to having to report, explain or justify; being answerable, responsible,” infers that one has little or no choice when being accountable.
To make matters worse, companies seldom focus on accountability until something goes wrong and then they ask, “Who is accountable for this?” No wonder no one wants to be held accountable! This common view of accountability as a punishment for poor performance or bad behavior, coupled with an organization’s reactive approach to accountability, often leads to blaming, finger pointing, and negative consequences.
Now imagine a workplace that defines and promotes accountability as a positive action, a culture that focuses more on the root meaning of the term “accountable” which is, “the willingness to stand up and be counted as part of a process, activity, or game.” This implies that one is empowered to choose to be accountable and that one has ownership of his or her actions. In this sense, accountability is not something done to an individual, but rather, it is a concept that embraces a personal choice and willingness to contribute to results.
If you or your managers believe that accountability is an obligation, a punishment, or a consequence imposed by others, your organization will never achieve exceptional results and your employees will run and hide from accountability. If you begin to promote accountability as an attitude of continually asking, “What can I do to rise above my own or the current circumstances to demonstrate ownership and achieve results?” you are on the path to creating a culture of accountability.
Once you set the cultural tone, you then need leaders who are both willing and able to be accountable, and you must provide them with the infrastructure necessary for holding people accountable.
Let’s review the three components that make up the formula for accountability success.
Component one: willingness
A person who is willing is a person who voluntarily, ungrudgingly chooses to do something. To be willing to hold someone accountable, one cannot be lazy, selfish, irresponsible or unmotivated, and one cannot possess a victim mentality nor have a chip on his or her shoulder. If you have managers with one or more of these traits, you’ll never get them to be accountable and they will never hold others accountable either.
Component two: ability
People who are not naturally assertive find it more difficult to hold others accountable. It is simply not comfortable for them to do so. This lower level of assertiveness is a personality trait that is not easily changed. While it can be altered in the short run, in the long-run, people who force themselves to be something they are not ultimately end up with stress which, in the workplace, lowers productivity.
People who are naturally more assertive can comfortably assert themselves and can confidently confront conflict. This trait enables a leader to hold others accountable with greater ease and, when it is paired with a dose of personal responsibility, also leads to a natural sense of ownership. (Note: Taken to an extreme, assertiveness becomes aggressiveness; a leadership style that seldom achieves long-term desired results. Beware of aggressive behavior.)
Component three: infrastructure
Organizational infrastructure includes having distinct objectives and clearly defined outcomes. These often take the form of short- or long-term goals, financial targets, and other measurable outcomes. Once the goals are established, the procedures for achieving the goals must be defined and managers must require strict adherence to them after first providing proper training. Along with goals, procedures and training, you must also ensure that employees have the proper physical environment to measure and achieve results. This includes quality tools, administrative support, vehicles and technology.
Finally, establish clear and reasonable boundaries for all employees. This can be done by adopting, documenting, disseminating and following a well-written, compliant employee handbook that includes work rules; job descriptions that define essential job functions; compensation and bonus plans with goals and objectives; and a performance feedback program that measures position-specific responsibilities.
First, promote a positive concept of accountability. Hire and promote managers who are willing and naturally able to hold themselves and others accountable. Then, put them in a position to succeed by providing the organizational infrastructure necessary to achieve accountability.
Jean Seawright is president of Seawright & Associates, a management consulting firm located in Winter Park, Fla. Since 1987, she has provided human resource management and compliance advice to employers across the country. She can be contacted at 407-645-2433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.