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9 Cultural Norms That Foster Continuous Change and Improvement, Part VII: Accountability

How can we create organizational cultures that enable shared and agile approaches to enacting significant and enduring departures from the shackles of the status quo? This is Part VII of a series on 9 Cultural Norms That Foster Continuous Change, Improvement and Innovation. These are cultural attributes whose inculcation I have learned in my years as a serial Change Master™, are the most predictive of game changing outcomes. They ground organizations in the envisionment of, planning for, and execution of transformative change.

  • Unwavering Commitment
  • Results Focus
  • Resiliency Leading to Adaptability and Agility
  • Innovative Thinking & Action
  • Intentional Transparency
  • Empowerment
  • Accountability
  • Inclusivity and Belonging
  • Inclusive Approach to Conflict Resolution

Accountability is the one-word lament of the ages! From teen rooms to boardrooms, the frustrating lack of, and endless search for, accountability is a constant hot topic of conversation. And for good reason.

Accountability is seen as the single most neglected behaviour in organizations, with one study of 5.4K upper managers showing 46% failure to perform in this critical area. Why? Because we’re trying to bring about accountability in the wrong way.

Accountability is about being responsible and answerable. Without it, efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and innovation cannot be optimized. It is the organizational brass ring.

Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.
Author and CEO Peter Bregman

Shifting to a Culture of Accountability

Cultures of accountability come with elevated levels of trust, autonomy and proactivity. In this ideal working environment, you can expect to find employees who are solution-focused and engaged, with a strong sense of ownership for their roles and responsibilities in the context of their team priorities. It’s therefore not hard to understand why accountability is such a sought-after behavioral expectation within cultures. And more so in today’s VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity).

The current focus on hybrid and remote working brings with it a renewed interest in the subject of accountability. Organizations are taking a closer look at how to build trust and confidence in a more independent and offsite workforce. Similarly, with the long overdue focus on diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging, building a culture of accountability is critical. It is key to the creation of high performing diverse teams and fostering acceptance and mutual respect at work.

In my years of experience, I have often seen a reliance on “enforced accountability” — an accountability focus not at the individual level but at a managerial and enterprise level. I’ve also seen organizations spend a lot of time and energy to compel action in their teams. And I’ve seen managers and leaders having to coax and check performance rather than being able to trust that highly motivated teams will achieve objectives.

“Enforced accountability” generally manifests as micromanagement, supervision, resentment, defensiveness, and frustration at all levels. Trying to mandate accountability and create it through rules, consequences and other strategies and tactics overlooks the fundamental shifts that need to take place. You cannot simply create change with a stick or, for that matter, education, and positive organizational statements.

Organizations need to create a shift – from ‘holding people accountable’, to allowing people to take on this value, grow into this way of working and succeed inside the freedom it can truly afford.

How Do We Build Cultures of Individual and Shared Accountability?

These seven essential actions help leaders to build engaged, high-performing teams with individual and shared accountability.

1. Set audacious goals: Co-create SMART goals for individual employees that are aligned to your team, department, and organization’s priorities (and yes, the Specific, Measured, Attainable, Relevant and Timed approach is still a highly actionable formula).

Collaborative goal setting increases your employees’ buy-in and commitment. Employees with a clear understanding of how they contribute to the team’s purpose are more engaged and accountable.

TIP: While a general coaching guideline is to aim for a 20% stretch with new goals, you want to create goals that are attainable.

Accountability breeds response-ability.
Author and CEO Stephen Covey

2. Outline clear expectations: A study by Partners in Leadership saw a “startling absence of clearly defined objectives.” They found that 85% of employees weren’t clear on what their organizations are trying to achieve. Don’t let your employees miss this step.

Clearly defined and well communicated expectations will minimize confusion and stress in the space of change. These should include the vision of a culture of accountability, standards for process, expectations of results and outcomes, and descriptions of individual roles and responsibilities for all team members. Make sure to build out relatable examples that should answer unasked questions, and allow time for questions, answers and debate at the outset.

TIP: Ensure that all stakeholders have been included in setting expectations at all levels (individuals, teams, departments, enterprise). Erroneous omissions could negatively affect results.

If you are building a culture where honest expectations are communicated and peer accountability is the norm, then the group will address poor performance and attitudes.
Author Henry Cloud

3. Obtain Cross-Organizational Commitment: Make a conscious organization wide commitment to accountability starting at the top in high profile situations where leaders should role model the practice. It increases the likelihood that employees know what’s expected of them and that they will fully engage. It also becomes a checkpoint to allow employees to raise concerns or questions; and then ‘activates’ this new way of being and helps ensure a strong start and smoother way forward. In a culture of accountability, everyone is accountable for results, regardless of their level of seniority or role.

TIP: When senior leaders model and communicate accountability it sends a clear message about commitment to change and establishes a strong baseline. This is especially true when done with regularity and full transparency, no excuses.

Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.
Leadership Consultancy CEO, Courtney Lynch

4. Provide Support and Build in Feedback: For many people, being given space to own the results and direction of their work will be a new experience. You can naturally expect a period of adjustment and learning. Make this a safe and fun space. This makes it more likely that they will lean into the transition to taking accountability with vigor.

Allow people to succeed by giving them enough time and the right information, tools, and training to make the right decisions. Ultimately, the satisfaction that comes from being accountable and the additional freedom and personal growth that comes with it will intrinsically propel their efforts.

Providing constructive, two-way, objective feedback using positive inquiry is essential. Keep your employees apprised of their progress along the way, and allow them to do the same for you, the leader.

TIP: Practice feedback by encouraging employees to make small adjustments, slowly increasing the ask. With time, feedback sessions will feel increasingly conversational, collaborative, and comfortable.

On good teams coaches hold players accountable, on great teams, players hold players accountable.
Professional basketball executive and former player, Joe Dumars

5. Cultivate Trust and Autonomy: By focusing on outcomes over process, and trusting employees to do their best, they will have the space to be more creative, if not innovative. They will also be more comfortable proactively identifying obstacles and challenges. If you insist on micromanagement and layering in multiple stages of approval and review, there can be no true accountability or empowerment.

TIP: Relating goals and responsibilities to company values and investing in ongoing professional development are two ways to help strengthen accountability building.

We need to move away from ‘holding people accountable’ and instead work to support people to proactively take accountability for themselves. It is not another person’s job to hold you accountable—that is your job.
Author and advocate Mia Mingus.

6. Monitor, Assess and Be Prepared to Pivot: As with any goal setting and change management work, tracking your progress against key performance indicators is critical so that you know if you’re on target; if there are any lags; or if course-correction is needed. Regular check-ins are always beneficial, especially in the case of new initiatives. Clear sight of what’s working and not working allows you to be agile and pivot from the start, adjusting your priorities as needed. Note: Check-ins are not the same as micro-management!

TIP: Integrate gamification elements into your work, taking time to celebrate milestones, even small wins, especially at the outset of the implementation of transformative change when there may still be a preponderance of naysayers. Recognizing and rewarding efforts acknowledges the real work being done and helps to build positive momentum.

7. Build in Accountability for New Employees: When hiring new employees, be sure to communicate your organization’s values and cultural norms and relate them to the critical few strategic priorities and new employees’ roles and responsibilities. Outline your expectations and what theirs should be. During your interview process, look for employees who are more likely to hold themselves accountable. Are they willing to admit mistakes, and solve problems? Are they likely to be proactive, solution-oriented, and independent workers? Culture fit is as important in a new employee as are skills and general aptitude.

TIP: When checking references, ask questions that elicit responses that speak to the extent to which the candidate is comfortable holding him/herself accountable.

Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.
Famed basketball coach Pat Summitt

Your organization’s long-term viability depends on the extent to which each team member is willing to take and embrace accountability. If employees don’t learn to hold themselves accountable, mediocrity if not apathy results. “Enforced accountability” is an ineffective practice.

Individual and mutual accountability bring numerous benefits including increased levels of trust; higher employee morale; and the optimization of efficiency, effectiveness productivity and innovation. There’s a lot to love in building these types of workforces.

Establishing a culture of accountability requires investing in the development of your employees and teams to make it an accepted cultural norm. It needs planning and change management mastery.

Explore more of the cultural norms that position for continuous change, improvement and innovation:

  1. Unwavering Commitment
  2. Results Focus
  3. Resiliency
  4. Innovative Thinking and Action
  5. Intentional Transparency
  6. Empowerment
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