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Biz Actions

Developing a Culture of Accountability: What to Do

September 2009

Biz_ActionsHarry Truman's definition of accountability is perhaps the best: "The Buck Stops Here." It was the message on a sign the President had on his White House desk to remind himself and others who entered his office that he took responsibility for making decisions.

As Truman said in his farewell address in January, 1953: "The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job."

So what can management and workplace leaders do to create that kind of culture of accountability for themselves and for everyone in their workforce? It's a question being debated in many circles today as the world's economies try to claw their way out of the worst economic recession since the pre-World War II depression.

Too many things went wrong. Too many people forgot their responsibilities to fulfill their duties. Too many people failed to do their jobs exceedingly well. Too many people cut corners.

Commenting on accountability and taking responsibility, John Graham (president of Graham Communications) recently cited an attitude expressed by recently retired General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz. Lutz told the New York Times that GM had gone through "a world of hurt, much of it not of our own doing."
Graham's reaction: "Those words may go down in B-School casebooks as one of the most notorious instances of a corporate culture's inability to accept responsibility...  It was the inability of management to take responsibility that did GM in."

Graham urges people in businesses and organizations to take the "Grass doesn't cut itself" attitude, as in "the identity of the organization will come from those with initiative, who recognize that the grass doesn't cut itself."

Hopefully that kind of attitude will bring us closer to an economic recovery. It's a good time to explore the topic of accountability in work. A good time to explore ways management and workplace leaders can create a workplace culture of accountability that will result in more people taking on responsibility for 100 percent accountability in their jobs.

Eight Ways to Achieve Accountability

1. Start with engagement. How does a person accept 100 percent accountability if they aren't also 100 percent engaged in the task at hand? Yet long-term research by the Gallup organization finds that only 29 percent of employees are fully engaged in their jobs. Only 29 percent of employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their companies or organizations, according to the Gallup Management Journal. Fully 56 percent of surveyed employees are not engaged in their work and another 15 percent of employees are actively disengaged.

With a total of 71 percent of surveyed U.S. employees not engaged and actively disengaged in their jobs... it appears the place to start achieving 100 percent accountability is to increase the percentage of employees who feel engaged in their work.

The Conference Board reviewed various studies and issued a report entitled Employee Engagement. It suggested steps like the following to improve employee engagement.

Keep promises. Employees want to know their employers are truthful and act with integrity.

Reward the right people... for the right things.

Demonstrate to employees how their individual performance affects company performance. Employees who see a direct connection between their work and the end product or service generally perform better.

Reduce decision-making hierarchies, when possible, to allow employees more autonomy and some decision-making authority.

2.  Set clear expectations. Consultant John Baldoni (who writes the "Leadership at Work" blog for Harvard Business Publishing) in a recent blog urged leaders to ask three questions to clarify employees' expectations: Do people know what is expected of them? Do employees know what they can expect from you? Do employees know what is expected of each other?

Asked who are more accountable, the workplace leaders or the employees, Baldoni replied: The leaders "are more accountable because they are the ones who are responsible for running the organization. They are the ones who set the conditions for people to succeed." Baldoni's newest book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

3. Practice SMART goal-setting... and teach personnel SMART goal-setting. This SMART concept has been around for years and was popularized 50 years ago by Peter Drucker. Use the SMART project management approach yourself, and teach and encourage personnel to use it also. Here are the five elements of SMART performance goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

4. Create a "no surprise" culture. Garry Ridge, president and CEO of the WD-40 Company, explains in the book Helping People Win At Work (which he co-authored with Ken Blanchard) that his company's culture is designed to help every employee (he calls them "tribe members") get "As" in their work. He calls it a "no surprise" culture with a performance review process that helps the tribe members achieve their As.

The review process works like this: Quarterly informal/formal discussions on progress toward agreed on goals. Tribe members not getting As or Bs get an L on a goal. The L score means the tribe members are in a learning mode, they're making progress. Anyone not making acceptable progress or not in a learning mode can get a C score, signifying a lack of effort. This results in an improvement plan.

"We don't play the blame game," Ridge asserts, "because we know we are accountable and responsible." At WD-40, says Ridge, "we establish ongoing conversations between the coach and the team member to ensure progress towards goals and realignment if necessary."

5. Cut the games people play. Mauricio Goldstein and Philip Read (in their new book Games at Work) detail numerous games people play at work. And playing many of these games is part of the reason some people fall short of accountability for getting their tasks done and meeting their goals.

Here are some of the games played at work: Gotcha... where people act as if they receive points for identifying and communicating others' mistakes. Marginalize... exiling individuals from teams or groups because they challenge the status quo, or aren't one of the boss' people. Blame... offering up scapegoats in order to excuse failure. Gray Zone... deliberately fostering ambiguity or a lack of clarity about who should do what to avoid accountability.

One reason people play games at work is to evade being accountable. Says Goldstein, "Games are a way to shield oneself from uncertainty, temporarily, and to try to look good. They offer the player a short term win, at a loss for the whole organization or for a colleague." For example, he explains, "many budget games are clearly ways to avoid being accountable for performance. The copy game offers protection because everyone who was copied on a decision becomes somehow complicit in the decision and so accountability is diluted."

"From some of the feedback we already have on the book," says Goldstein, "it is clear that employees can also think of games played by their bosses as an excuse for their own lack of performance. We call this the victim game."

6. Eliminate all the reasons for an employee to fail. This is the strategy Ferdinand F. Fournies, founder of Fournies Associates Management Solutions, put together years ago and spelled out in his book Why Employees Don't Do What They're Supposed to Do and What To Do About It. Fournies also taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

The responsibility for achieving a high level of accountability from a workforce lies with management and managers, Fournies asserted. He wrote "management philosophies and theories have to be converted into things managers 'do' that influence people's performance. Management has to be recognized as an intervention the same way mechanical maintenance, cake baking, or orchestra conducting is an intervention to assure a desired outcome."

So, "managers must do specific things at specific times to influence the eventual outcome of their people's performance." What must managers do? Fournies' answer: Eliminate those reasons for nonperformance that occur before the work begins... after work begins... and while work is underway.

Among the 16 reasons for nonperformance that Fournies' laid out are these: People don't know what they're supposed to do. They don't know how to do it. They think something else is more important. They anticipate negative consequences. They have personal problems. No one can do the work. There are no positive consequences for doing the work. They are rewarded for not doing the job.

7. Create and follow through with Accountability Tests. Former IBM human resources executive Andrew O'Keefe, author of the new book The Boss, urges use of an "accountability test" for senior leaders. The concept of this test is: "What would a manager need to do in your organization to be moved out of their manager role?"

An "accountability test" like that could apply to everyone in your workplace. It could be a simple test question: "What does this person need to do – or fail to do – to be moved out of their position?"

8. When all else fails, move the slacker out. Hold everyone accountable to performance standards, says Peter Stark, president of Peter Barron Stark Companies. He's also co-author of the book Engaged! How Leaders Build Organizations Where Employees Love To Come To Work. The book details the many ways the Best-of-the-Best organizations excel.

On the topic of achieving high levels of accountability in the workplace, Stark explains: "The Best-of-the-Best organizations are comfortable getting close to conflict and resolving problems. Some people are conflict averse, they hope it doesn't happen again. If that doesn't work they resort to prayer and hope to live with it. The Best-of-the-Best aren't that way. They are crystal clear on when this conflict has to change and resolving it. When that doesn't work, they coach, counsel the person, send them out for training. And when that doesn't work they give them to a competitor."

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