Accountability is Your Friend

Somewhere along the way we’ve become uncomfortable with accountability. We don’t appreciate being “held accountable” and the thought of holding someone else accountable isn’t appealing either. Both sides of the coin invite conflict, blame, and judgment — all things that many of us prefer to avoid. The old sayings, “don’t rock the boat” and “don’t make waves” speak directly to this. Accountability simply feels negative for many managers so they avoid it.

The definition of accountable is:

1. (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.
synonyms: responsible, liable, answerable; to blame

We all see things in our organizations, communities, government, and families that we should be holding each other accountable for but we choose not to. Maybe we feel it’s a battle not worth fighting. Or we hate conflict so we pretend not to notice. Perhaps we believe it’s just too big a problem or issue for us to solve. Maybe we don’t want to labeled the “instigator” or the “police”, so we choose to keep our heads down and our mouths shut.

And honestly, who among us really enjoys being on the receiving end of accountability? It’s never fun to be called out for the things we do — or fail to do — or say. It’s why when parents are told their child is bullying others at school, often the first response is, “not my kid.” Denial is much safer on our psyches than having to own our mistakes. When we are held accountable by others it usually means we’ve failed in some way. And who wants to acknowledge that even privately, let alone in public to another person?

So our organizations keep rolling along ignoring the perpetual instigator, the workplace bully, and the front office gossip. We keep our performance evaluations to a generic flavor of vanilla and avoid their potential for positive impact. We tell ourselves that certain individuals “aren’t that bad” so we can hold on to their legitimate professional skills and talents — even though they are coated in toxin.

The problem is when we ignore opportunities to hold people around us accountable for the little things, the problems they create get bigger until the situation becomes impossible to manage and extremely difficult to positively transform without there being a major tipping point.

It’s easy to imagine that at the age of 32, Ryan Lochte experienced many crossroads where he could have been held accountable for lesser behavior than what led to his spectacular downfall in Rio. Who around him didn’t hold him to a higher standard when he was younger? Why wasn’t he able to hold himself to that higher standard? On a global stage when it mattered the most he was unable to 1. self-regulate his behavior and then 2. admit his wrongdoing. He’s being held accountable now and it’s costing him millions.

Workplace bullying and entitlement operate in much the same manner. An employee who isn’t held accountable for their negative impact on the team around them will ultimately infect the entire organization. Before a manager knows what happened, the valued employees are heading out the door. Why?

Because high performers crave cultures of accountability.

A company that I recently consulted with had to declare bankruptcy. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch unfold — particularly because much of what led to their demise was preventable. At the core of their struggle was a organizational culture that lacked accountability. Too much was promised when it couldn’t be delivered, deadlines were missed, departments blamed each other for their failures, and their product ultimately suffered in quality. The word “Accountability” hung on the wall but it wasn’t operationalized.

So how do you know if you are operating from a place of accountability versus blame? Here’s an easy test: Judgement is personal: Accountability is professional. If you are focused on who did something, rather than what happened, it’s personal. It you are examining an outcome and looking for the root cause while working to make sure it doesn't happen again, you are creating a space for accountability.

Being an accountable organization means that people do what they say they are going to do. People collaborate to execute goals that support the mission of the company. Employees focus on the issues and can separate the work from the personalities involved. Lapses are examined for what went wrong and why, and focus on examining the problem rather than the person who made the error. Roles are clear, and people are given expectations and evaluated on how well they meet them. The most effective cultures of accountability I have witnessed embrace honesty, vulnerability and empathy as part of the process.

Accountability is not a dirty word. Implement it for your employees in a way that balances the values of challenge and support, and you will see dramatically better results.

Not all waves are bad ones — there is a big difference between a destructive hurricane and great surfing. Make waves of accountability in your organization, so your employees can enjoy the ride, and contribute their best work in an environment that cares enough about them to hold them accountable.