By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager
Accountability has a bad reputation. People often hear the word through a filter of blame and punishment because they connect it with a negative experience.
But if we’re going to point fingers, accountability itself isn’t the culprit—it’s the person in authority wielding it like a weapon. Anyone who has worked under a heavy-handed manager knows that drill—and it’s not an effective model for success.
Smart business leaders know better—when introduced correctly, accountability is a positive and powerful tool. And the most effective method to incorporate it into their organization is to make it a cornerstone of their corporate culture.
Responsibility vs. Accountability
To successfully leverage accountability, people need to understand what it means. It’s frequently confused with responsibility even though the words aren’t synonymous. The main difference between the two terms is that responsibility can be shared or delegated while accountability cannot.
Being accountable goes beyond having the responsibility to do something. It’s not until someone takes ownership of the outcome of their commitment that they become accountable.
Business coach and author Mike Goldman breaks it down this way:
If a person is responsible, it means they’re supposed to roll up their sleeves to get the job done. Responsibility can be on one person or a group of people. It’s perfectly accurate to say something like, “we’re all responsible for customer service in this organization.”
Accountability is always and only on one person. The person accountable owns the result, but they’re not necessarily the person doing the work. While they can’t delegate their accountability away, they can absolutely delegate responsibility. The person accountable needs to ensure there’s a plan, and they need to ensure the right measures are in place to gauge success or failure.
Being accountable erases excuses for missing the mark:
- “I thought you had this!”
- “It’s just the way the market is right now.”
- “The other department didn’t follow through.”
After acknowledging a task as a responsibility, accountable people do their best to deliver results and then own the consequences. Or as revered author and educator Steven R. Covey used to say,
“Accountability breeds response-ability.”
Accountability Starts at the Top
“The buck stops here!” Those were the words engraved on a plaque that remained on Harry Truman’s desk throughout his presidency. It was his constant reminder that “passing the buck” is something a true leader never does.
Part of leadership is to set responsibilities and hold others accountable for achieving goals. But that construct by itself can lead to blame-filled environments that shrivel morale. To be effective, leaders should also hold themselves accountable for their ability to guide others and the organization’s overall success.
When they walk the talk, their team members will follow their example. Employees will also mimic a boss that shrinks from accountability. A leader who pushes deadlines and doesn’t own up to mistakes will have a team full of people who do the same.
For accountability to stick, as with everything else within an organization, the leader must be the standard-bearer.
The Plus Side of Accountability: Everybody Wins
In Mark Samuel’s book, The Accountability Revolution, he distills the underlying benefit of what happens to people who take ownership of outcomes—they achieve at a higher level. Accountability, he claims, is power.
Samuel says performance rises because “accountability is the basis for having an environment of trust, support, and dedication to excellence.” That foundation rewards both leaders and their staff.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management lists the following positive results of practicing a constructive approach to accountability:
- Improved performance
- More employee participation and involvement
- Increased feelings of competency
- Increased employee commitment to the work
- More creativity and innovation
- Higher employee morale and satisfaction with the work
Teams are more unified when accountability is standard operating procedure for an entire organization. Coworkers are more likely to encourage one another and celebrate everyone’s successes. Feedback isn’t regarded as criticism; it is expected and appreciated because everyone wants to nail their objectives.
Employees empowered with accountability take more pride in what they do and feel more closely aligned with company goals.
A Lack of Accountability: Cause and Effect
The absence of accountability is just as detrimental to an organization as using it to instill fear. But while imposing shame and guilt is done purposefully, a lack of accountability is often unintentional.
Leadership expert Melissa Raffoni makes this observation in Harvard Business Review:
“More often, lack of accountability is the result of an underlying issue, such as unclear roles and responsibilities, limited resources, a poor strategy, or unrealistic goals.”
When leaders don’t factor accountability into their business model, an assortment of negative workplace traits can take hold:
- Weak collaboration
- Ineffective communication
- In-fighting over mistakes
- Hiding errors
In short, a lack of accountability is a recipe for a dysfunctional workplace. In this kind of environment, hard performers who take their responsibilities seriously are overshadowed by coworkers who continuously let things slide. Ultimately, the negative work atmosphere will tank morale and dissolve employee engagement.
The absence of accountability goes beyond affecting the workforce. It eventually trickles down to the customer experience. As Ian Cornett from Eagle’s Flight points out:
“Lack of accountability diminishes the level and quality of customer service. It also impacts how customers are treated, which can lead to negative reviews, dissatisfied customers, and shaken customer relationships.”
In the big picture, a lack of accountability in the workplace limits a leader’s ability to execute critical plans and initiatives. The condition curtails progress and affects the bottom line.
Embedding Accountability into Company Culture
Accountability should kick in before projects are in motion or goals have been missed. In Winning with Accountability, Henry J. Evans writes:
“The secret that successful organizations have discovered is to install accountability on the front end of interactions…before the outcome is known. Successful organizations front-load accountability into their strategy. When front-loaded, accountability breeds better relationships, eliminates surprises, and vastly improves job satisfaction and performance.”
CultureWise CEO David Friedman concurs and takes a deeper approach to this concept. He believes that accountability should be embedded into company culture as the basis for all employee behavior. “Without doing that,” he says, “our efforts to build a strong culture amount to little more than wishful thinking.”
When leaders weave accountability into their company culture, it’s clear to everyone that taking ownership of one’s actions is “the way we do things here.” It’s a priority, and it’s something to be proud of. And by making accountability a positive standard to uphold, rather than a “gotcha” blame-game, leaders secure buy-in from their staff.
In Culture by Design, David Friedman explains his eight-step process to build a high-performing culture. The first seven steps outline how to define and reinforce the behaviors that will make the organization and its staff thrive. Accountability is the eighth step and the capstone of this framework because it is integral to achieving success.
After a culture program is underway, he recommends two tangible ways to demonstrate and encourage accountability.
- Performance Reviews
Once the preferred behaviors have been introduced and taught, surveys are an effective way to measure how well staff members live up to these standards. It’s a good idea to ask several groups for honest feedback: customers, vendors and other stakeholders, and their employees.
Responses from the different groups provide a vivid portrait of how people perceive a staff’s performance. Survey data analysis allows leaders to better understand areas that need work and where employees excel.
This information can help organizations fine-tune coaching efforts and assist team members in becoming more accountable for their behavior.
Friedman notes that the surveys serve another purpose, too.
“They send a clear message to our own team as well as the outside world that we’re very serious about our culture. Serious enough to hold ourselves accountable for what we say is important to us.”
In his leadership workshops, Friedman frequently asks participants if their performance review process includes elements of their culture. Surprisingly, only about 25 percent say that it does. That, he says, is a disconnect for employees.
If culture isn’t mentioned in a staff member’s performance review, they’re likely to conclude that it isn’t very important.
Assuming that optimal behaviors have been clearly communicated to the team, Friedman suggests choosing several that are most relevant for each position. Both the employee and the manager should use them as metrics to do the assessment and then compare results as a basis for discussion.
Friedman also recommends having employees identify one or two behaviors they want to work on in the next quarter. Managers should then ask the employee how they plan to achieve those goals and what support is needed.
The Ultimate Accountability
Accountability isn’t just a way to assess whether an employee hits their numbers or possesses expertise. To have a thriving company culture, people need to excel at working well with one another and customers. But some people who are great at achieving personal work goals are dismal collaborators—no matter how well they’ve been coached.
Too often, top performers who disrupt the workflow for everyone else are allowed to stay on the team. That’s because they provide something to the company that leadership doesn’t want to lose and is afraid they can’t replace. Allowing such disruptors to stay sends a clear message to the rest of the team:
“People who refuse to abide by our culture standards don’t belong here—but we’ll look the other way if you bring in a lot of business.”
But leaders who allow a talented but detrimental employee to remain risk losing other valuable team members. The departure of good people who get fed up with the situation can cost a lot more than eliminating one bad apple.
When highly disruptive people don’t respond to a sincere coaching and mentoring effort and refuse to adhere to an organization’s culture, it’s time to let them go. Dismissing people who won’t toe the line demonstrates leadership’s zero-tolerance for unaccountability.
It isn’t easy to show the door to top achievers who flout the rules. But as traumatic as it feels, this ultimate accountability almost always produces positive results.
A healthier team typically bands together and picks up any slack so that the organization can move forward more successfully and smoothly than ever before.
Drive Your Culture through Accountability
Lack of ownership can reduce employees’ potential for achievement. But the sky’s the limit if accountability becomes their default mindset. That one characteristic empowers them to succeed at a higher level in every undertaking.
The best way to make accountability second nature to employees is through continuous practice of their company’s preferred behaviors. These standards should be introduced and reinforced in multiple ways.
David Friedman created CultureWise to operationalize this process. Based on the framework outlined in Culture by Design, the system offers a unique set of tools and curriculum to help staff members understand and internalize optimal behaviors. Learn more about the process by exploring the website and trying out a free demo of the CultureWise app.
A free, two-chapter download of the book is also currently available. And stay informed about the latest business and culture topics with a complimentary subscription to the CultureWise weekly newsletter.