One of the most difficult skills for many leaders to master is to artfully and effectively build accountability into the culture. They need to walk the line between creating a punitive culture, where people are afraid to be innovative, take responsibility or drive change because of the fear of failure and its ramifications. On the other extreme is the leader who wants to create such a feel-good culture that they let things slide and pretty soon people aren’t clear what, if anything is important and they adopt Scarlett O’Hara’s approach to dealing with adversity: “Tomorrow is another day.”
In an accountability culture, each person takes ownership for achieving results.
Too often we think about accountability only when something goes wrong. Until then, we figure that people know what needs to get done and will do it. It’s what I call a rear view mirror exercise. A more powerful approach is to be mindful of creating a culture of accountability by using the ACAR model.
- Align: To create a culture of accountability, you need to start by aligning goals, people and process. The first step is to ensure that individual or team goals are aligned with the larger corporate, group and department goals. People will give more importance to what they are doing when they understand how what they do fits into the bigger picture. Even better, explain the larger goals to them and then engage them in setting their own goals. Second, ask yourself if the work people are doing is aligned with their strengths — their talent– and with the goals you are asking them to achieve? The ability to use our strengths at work makes it much more likely that we will complete tasks and create results. Third, align the goal with what the individual finds motivating. When an individual is able to see how the work they are doing helps fulfill a personal need or aspiration, they will own the work. Finally, do we have enough processes in place for someone to achieve what needs to get done? If not, have you given them the capacity to create it?
- Communicate Expectations: Do your expectations focus on activity or results? Am I accountable for the activities I engage in or the results they produce? Often it’s both. For example, we may have expectations for how someone works with other members of the team in order to achieve their results. Where accountability falls apart is when we focus solely on one or the other. We’ll reward the person who achieves the best results even though everyone knows their behavior flies in the face of what we say we value, leading to a toxic culture. Other times, we are so focused on people getting the activities right that we will give them an “A for effort”. We lose sight of the ultimate goal because we are so focused on the process that we create a situation where nothing seems to get done. Communicate what your expectations are — both behavior and results.
- Acknowledge. We usually think of holding people accountable when someone is not making the deadline, when quality isn’t what it should be or when results aren’t achieved. Often, we are looking for where to assign blame. Turn that thinking on its head. Focus on those people who are doing what they are supposed to do and achieving results. Recognize them, point it out to others. Watch the impact it has. People will recognize that achieving results is noticed and makes a difference.
- Redirect and Re-engage. Even after aligning, communicating and acknowledging, there will still be performance issues from time to time. You’ll still need to have the hard conversations. You will need to tell people that part of their performance is not where it needs to be. You will need to share your disappointment or describe the impact it had on the team. Most importantly, you then need to redirect and re-engage. You need to engage the individual in a conversation about how to improve performance. You need to recheck the alignment, the communication and the acknowledgement. The conversation should build a partnership in which the individual takes ownership of the work that needs to be done.