A Counter-intuitive Approach to Creating a Culture of Accountability

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How would you rate the level of accountability in your organization? How about your own personal accountability?

Many organizations that suffer from poor results and low morale attribute their inability to make sustainable improvements to lack of accountability in the organization. When I ask teams to rate the level of accountability in their organization on a scale of 0-10—10 being a state where every individual feels and acts completely in an accountable manner—I generally get a rating between 4 and 6. When asked to rate their own personal accountability, individuals on the same team generally respond with a rating of 7-9. In other words, the thinking goes, “If everybody else were as accountable as I am, the world would be a great place.” This, of course, is normal. As I have mentioned before, our natural tendency is to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior. But where do we go from here? How can we shift the level of accountability in the organization to 9-10?

My position is that the reason so many organizations lack accountability, or at least feel that they do, is that they are focused on the wrong thing. They are focused on holding people accountable and trying to figure out how to do it efficiently and effectively, when in fact the true answer is only found when we focus on the right question, which is: “How can we create an environment in which each person is compelled to practice personal accountability of their own accord?” Our fundamental belief, that we are personally much more accountable than the organization itself, tends to keep our focus on what we consider to be the problem—those “other people,” who incidentally, we have no control over—to the detriment of us actually solving it. Meanwhile, we overlook the simplest, quickest, and most effective way to create unprecedented accountability throughout the organization. That is, by beginning to practice personal accountability ourselves, right now! It really is that simple. In fact, the thinking that this grossly oversimplifies how to tackle such a complex issue is exactly what is at the root of the problem! You see, while you’re trying to figure out how to hold those other people accountable, they are wondering the same thing about you; everyone ends up neglecting their own accountability to ensure yours, which they have no way of doing to begin with, to the detriment of the whole organization. It recalls the adage, “Whenever you point at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”

Imagine what your workplace culture would be like if everyone suddenly got over their obsession with making sure other people are doing their share and just started going above and beyond the call of duty with respect to their own responsibilities. I have witnessed this on a few occasions and I can tell you, the effect on morale and results is unbelievable.

Unfortunately, it is not that often that organizations get it right and set the stage to create the conditions in which people offer their unconditional commitment. To get an idea of how the process works, though, all you need to do is look at what happens when disaster strikes. In those few moments or days or weeks during which a community is stricken by a natural disaster, people usually set aside their differences and, rather than looking to see if others are doing their part, they naturally offer up whatever they can give or do to make a contribution to the community as a whole. Ironically, the crisis mentality that forces people to focus more on their own concerns and efficacy actually ends up creating a situation in which group effectiveness is at an all-time high, simply because people are not wasting time focusing on things they have no control over. But as soon as conditions get a little better, a little more comfortable to the point that our existence is not in danger, we once again begin to become preoccupied with what others are doing and use their lack of participation as an excuse to withhold our own. One of the factors that exacerbates this dynamic is that practicing unconditional accountability takes a great deal of determination and much more discipline and commitment than sitting back and complaining about why those other people are not accountable.

By now, you may be wondering why I am such a fan of everybody minding their own business as a path to creating an accountable culture. It may sound like I’m suggesting that we ought to let others off the hook and let them get away with doing as much or as little as they want! If that is what you’re thinking, let me assure you, that’s not what I’m advocating at all. In fact, just the opposite. My experience with accountable cultures is that accountable people do a great job of making sure others are holding themselves accountable. If you’re truly accountable and you’re doing everything you know to do and you see someone struggling to do the same, you take action. You don’t retreat to the stands and talk about the game. You stay on the court and do what you need to do to make sure the other person gets the right feedback, has the right kind of support, encouragement, tools, or whatever they need to do what they need to do. Only unaccountable people stand idly by while others fall short and then complain about lack of accountability.

If this sounds too soft to you and you think it will result in anarchy, let me ask you this: If you were trusted to do what you needed to do without being micro-managed, would you do it? Or, would you take advantage of the situation to slack off and do the minimum that you could get away with? I’m guessing, based on my own research and experience, that 9 out of 10 people who read this post do not think they need to be held accountable by someone else. If that is the case, why would you think others would be any different? Everybody has an inherent desire to be part of something extraordinary and the basic assumption that others are lazy and would take advantage of not being micro-managed is flawed. Besides, the traditional approach of holding people accountable as opposed to being personally accountable and supporting others in practicing the same hasn’t been working so well.

Just so I’m clear, what I’m suggesting is that the most powerful way for you to impact the culture at your workplace is to “be the change that you want to see,” to quote Gandhi. In other words, begin role-modeling the personal accountability you want to see in others. If you’re still not completely sold on the idea and feel like it might not work unless you hold others accountable too, I have good news for you. Part of your personal accountability is to ensure that others are behaving according to their own personal accountability. So, you may at times need to take the appropriate action to enable them to do that. The only difference is that if you are truly accountable to yourself, you don’t get to use other people’s lack of accountability as an excuse to not do what you know you should do.

In case you think I live in some fantasy land and don’t recognize that everybody is not going to respond to this kind of approach, I’d like to assure you that I’m aware of that too. In 31 years of managing organizations and leading people, I have come across a number of occasions where that was indeed the case. However, behaving exactly the way I have described, with personal accountability, helped me influence a large number of those seemingly unaccountable people to make very good decisions that led to them make extraordinary contributions and reap the rewards accordingly. At the same time, there were some who ended up continuing to make poor decisions, despite my role-modeling of personal accountability, which led to their voluntary or involuntary separation from the organization. Regardless of the outcome, I recognized all along that I didn’t get to complain about those people not being accountable because my commitment was to their ability to be accountable to themselves. Part of my personal accountability was to treat them with respect and preserve their dignity as I communicated to them where they stood, what they could do to close the gap, and what the positive and negative consequences of their choices would be. Maintaining personal accountability doesn’t mean that others are spared the consequences of their choices; it means that each individual person is solely responsible for accepting the consequences of their choices, good or bad, regardless of what others are doing or not doing.

Maintaining personal accountability doesn’t mean that others are spared the consequences of their choices; it means that each individual person is solely responsible for accepting the consequences of their choices, good or bad, regardless of what others are doing or not doing.

I’m convinced that there will always be a percentage of people who will make poor decisions but I’m also convinced, even in those cases, we would be better off as leaders and peers to not just stand back and watch them fail but to fulfill our own accountabilities. We can do this by role-modeling accountability to incentivize them to make the right choices, or at least by helping them get clear that they alone bear the responsibility of the consequences of not doing so.
 

The Bottom line:

If you want an accountable culture, stop focusing on holding people accountable and start being personally accountable. If you feel that others need to be browbeaten and micro-managed into submission, consider whether that is true for yourself. Probably not. Don’t fall prey to the fundamental attribution error and assume that what applies to you doesn’t also apply to others. Fulfill your own accountabilities unconditionally, including supporting others in doing the same, by not standing back and allowing them to act and feel mediocre. Role-model personal accountability and empower others to take on being accountable to themselves as well.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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