The issue of Accountability often comes up in leadership discussions. In many organizations there isn’t agreement about what it is, how to get it and how to keep it. Many leadership discussions sound like this, “We need an Accountability Culture” and “We need Accountability Training”. When I ask leaders to explain why they believe they need this type of culture and training, three common responses emerge:
- Employees don’t take responsibility for their work.
- Employees toss responsibility over the fence and expect others to fix their problems.
- Employees play the blame game when things go wrong.
There are a few concerns with these three common reasons for perceived Accountability gaps. First, there is an assumption that accountability is solely an employee issue and next, that employees somehow have a character flaw that prevents accountability. So, the question remains, is accountability a state or a trait?
Conversely, when I ask employees if they are accountable for their work, four themes emerge:
- Required outcomes are not always clear.
- Responsibility boundaries are not always clearly defined.
- Management wants to control exception problem solving.
- Insufficient experience prevents non-routine problem solving.
Allow me to borrow a quote from the film Apollo 13: “Houston we have a problem”
If these two diametrically opposed perceptions are a microcosm of the larger employee/management communities, four things must happen to address the accountability gap.
The work environment MUST be error tolerant before Accountability can increase.
The employee culture (population) watches EVERYTHING the management culture says and does. It then interprets these actions and tells the story to each other that explains how to stay safe and prosper. If employees witness or know that one of their own was punished for an error, they will figure out how to stay out of harm’s way. When this happens, employee discretionary effort tends to contract
The environment must be safe for employees to own their problems.
When it is not safe, employees tend to blame others or (perceived) uncontrollable variables in order to self-protect. This is not an insidious act, just human nature.
Break the Cycle of Dependency.
It’s quite easy to create a cycle of dependency between manager and employee. Consider the scenario where an employee presents a problem solution but it’s half-baked or isn’t exactly how the manager would solve it. So, taking the fast and perhaps easy, short-term route, the manager tells the employee what to change and how to do it. If this pattern repeats itself the manager will inadvertently established a cycle of dependency. Employees quickly learn exactly how far they can go before needing the manager’s approval. In the vernacular, the employee tells colleagues, “well, you know our manager, it’s his/her way or the highway”. To break this cycle, the manager must begin to allow the employee to solve problems and issues independently with guidance. Ask more than you tell to enable the employee to gain knowledge and judgment required for independent problem solving. This process may take time but the Accountability dividend can be substantial.
Managers must be hyper-aware of using naïve attribution about employee performance causation.
Naïve Attribution occurs when the managers assign performance gap reasons to employees’ personality traits. Here are four common attributions:
- “They just don’t get it”.
- “He/she (employee) is not a team player”.
- “He/she (employee) never goes the extra mile”.
- “I’ll just give this (problem) to my Go-To person to get it done”.
If you hear yourself assigning naïve attribution to an employee, stop and ask three questions:
- Is it the person the problem?
- Is it the process the problem?
- Is it the relationship (manager-employee) the problem?
The accountability issue has been discussed since the days of William I who required landowners to account for their holdings for proper assessment. Landowners were required to swear under oath to the crown that their list was truthful. Even though things are very different today, we still contend with the accountability issue. Try a simple exercise. The next time you feel compelled to tell your employee what to do and how to solve a problem, stop and ask questions like this:
- What have you done already?
- What ideas do you have to solve this problem?
- Are there any other ways to define the problem?
- How will the (recommended) solutions impact others downstream?
Track the result. Shaping a Culture of Accountability is a complex challenge. These questions alone may not completely solve the accountability challenge but it will move you one step closer to the desired state of a full-fledged culture of accountability.
 Slap, S. Bury My Heart in Conference B. New York: Penguin Book.
 Jones, E. E. et al. Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
 Bovens, M. (2010). Two Concepts of Accountability: Accountability as a Virtue and as a Mechanism. Western European Politics.