3 Ways to Create a Culture of Accountability
March 13, 2019
Like a toothy cog, we depend on others to propel our work. I wait for Jim to finish working on X, so I can complete Y. But what happens when Jim doesn’t complete X? What happens when Jim repeatedly does not complete X on time? I’m talking about accountability. While we should hold ourselves accountable, it is also necessary for leadership to hold those who report to them accountable. But what does that really mean? First, I will tell you it is not about punishment, and anyone who views it through a punitive lens, will never be able to create a culture of accountability.
The Thoughtful Leader defines accountability as “a framework, a system, a way of operating. It involves team structure, communication and most of all, behavior.” This framework or system can also be referred to as a culture, and it is not something that magically happens. Leaders must first hold themselves accountable and then systematically create a culture that fosters accountability. But how?
There are 3 concrete ways a leader can create a culture of accountability:
Leaders who hold up in their corner offices learning about the goings on in their departments, etc. only through conversations with people who enter their offices, create a detached culture. Managers, middle managers, all the way up to senior leadership, need to be out and about observing what is going on around them. This can provide a plethora of valuable insight into the inner workings of an office or department. Employees will always act more professional within the confines of their boss’s office, so by stepping outside the four walls of the office, the manager can see their employees in action. Does Jim seem overly stressed, is Mary spending too much time on her phone, or Sally and Hank seem to collaborate well. For situations that seem less than ideal, there should be no punitive lens, instead observe how Jim and Mary are repeatedly missing deadlines, the fact Jim seemed overly stressed and Mary’s phone use seems excessive. Then, use these insights to inform a deeper conversation to gain an understanding (a crucial word when talking about accountability) regarding the issues at hand.
There are two aspects to effectively communicating. First, clear expectations must be set. It is impossible to create a culture of accountability when employees don’t have a clear understanding of what is expected. If you, as the leader, can’t be clear, then you are setting your employees up to fail. Setting clear expectations can happen through discussions and meetings, but it is always best to follow-up with email reiterating the expectations.
The second aspect is to ask direct questions about what folks are doing or working on. How often have you heard a manager say, “How are things going?” That is no more direct or concrete than, “How are you?” The assumed response to those generic questions is a one word reply, such as “Good.” Direct questions, however, will force the person to answer with more specificity. For example, “Tell me about the progress so far on project X.” The employee can’t respond with a one-word generic response. They will be forced to explain, in detail, about the status of the project. The manager or leader then ask even more specific questions as the employee outlines their progress, etc.
Create a Supportive Environment
Accountability only works when it is housed within a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable asking for help. For example, if Jim is stressed out, but feels he cannot reach out to his boss or his colleagues for help, then Jim’s stress will only get worse, as will his performance. In a supportive environment, Jim would feel he was able to go to his boss and explain that his wife was just diagnosed with cancer and needed help to complete project X. He might not have a personal issue, rather he might just be stuck and can’t figure out how to move forward. Whether personal or not, this kind of culture only works when Jim understands asking for help is not just an option, but an expectation. He also understands that while he may need help today or next week, next month his colleague may be the one who needs help. But this cannot happen if there are punitive consequences for asking for help.
Level, status, seniority, etc. do not matter. Accountability should be woven through the fabric of every position, in every department. It cannot happen in a bubble, it must start at the top, it must be fostered and cultivated, and it must never be punitive. In companies where accountability is fostered, employees feel comfortable and safe to fail and to ask for help. And we know when employees feel safe, they are more creative and more productive, which in the end, has a positive impact on the bottom line.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Dept. Head of Graduate Studies