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How to create a Culture of Accountability

Mark Green's upcoming immersion event to improve accountability and productivity

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“There’s a crisis of accountability in organisations today, a crisis of epidemic proportions.” (1)

Why are leaders failing at keeping others accountable? 82% of participants in a workplace accountability survey say they either ‘try but fail’ or ‘avoid it altogether.’ (2) Business coach Mark Green is a global expert on accountability and he has some answers.

Ahead of his upcoming deep-dive immersion series, a 3-part application workshop for leadership teams on creating a culture of accountability, he told us accountability boils down to one question:

'What are the results you are paid to deliver through your role?'

In essence, accountability is 'ownership of an outcome' - not just the doing of the task. In this blog we'll explore what this means, why peer learning and leadership development play a big role, and easy steps for you to create a culture of accountability.


What is a culture of accountability?

A culture of accountability is about achieving a results-based mindset versus an activity-based mindset across teams at every level of your organisation.

As author of ‘Creating a Culture of Accountability’ Mark Green starts by pointing to the dictionary definition of Accountable: (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online)

1.     Subject to giving an account: answerable

2.     Capable of being explained: explainable.

This definition of accountability shows it’s about people being answerable for the results they are paid to deliver. Focusing attention on results, not tasks, allows for more flexibility and autonomy from leaders. In turn, accountability leads to higher engagement and delivers a stronger, higher-performing team.


Free Download: 10 Leadership Qualities That Will Help Solve Challenges in 2022


How can you create a culture of accountability? 

In business, there's an 'epidemic of letting people off the hook', according to HBR. (3) But a culture of accountability isn't out of reach. It just takes mindfulness, a bit of courage, and Mark Green’s accountability lessons.   


Mark starts with three building blocks of accountability based around the premise that people like their work to be noticed.

3 building blocks of accountability

·       Expectation – ‘I believe in you.’

·       Context – ‘Why this matters’ (to me and/or to our organisation).

·       Attention – ‘Hey, I’m watching you.’


As we’ll see below, if you expect more of others they will rise to the occasion. Of course, nobody’s perfect but even a 20% improvement makes a big difference over time to the results of a company.


Behaviours that improve or ruin accountability

Rewarding the right behaviours helps to build a culture of accountability. If colleagues and leaders can communicate clearly, show they care, and practise radical candour, it can go a long way to keeping employees engaged and productive. 

We know an employee who feels 'engaged and inspired' is 125% more productive than the unsatisfied staffer. (4)

So, work down this list to improve the accountability results in your team.


Hire the right team

Get the right people on board. Leadership author and researcher Jim Collins believes the single most important thing across all aspects of leadership is the principle of ‘first who’. 

“It is first the right people, right people in the key seats, then drive the bus.”

A team of ‘A-players’ (or ‘impact players’ as Liz Wiseman calls them) will have the right mentality to reinforce responsibility and accountability.

 

Have high expectations

“What is expected shapes what happens.” – Human Psychology website

Show you have high expectations of someone, instead of a toleration of mediocrity. Studies have shown that someone’s high expectations of us goes a long way to improving our behaviour and our performance.


Communicate clearly

Be transparent in your communications, instead of playing your cards close to your chest. Not divulging enough detail doesn’t help accountability. Neither does infrequent communication. Mark says that until your team literally rolls their eyes and finishes your sentences for you, you’re not repeating yourself enough.


Monitor performance and progress

Be quick to course correct. It's more effective than a slow response to change. Accountability is about being proactive, making constant changes and staying on an approximate line, says Mark.

Often, accountability only shows up when it's too late to do much about it. The Workplace Accountability Study found 80% of those surveyed said feedback was something that happened to them 'only when things go wrong’ or ‘not at all.’


Focus on the right things

Look for the answers not the culprit. When you ‘take someone to task’ it sounds like a blame game. So be clarity-driven instead of doing any finger pointing. In other words, make accountability about being driven to find root causes for issues, and not naming and shaming. This is very important for the team to maintain cohesion.


Plan with discipline

Make a plan. Every project or task benefits from disciplined planning instead of taking action before a plan is in place. To hold people accountable, planning is critical so that a time frame for completion is understood and the parameters of the project or task are clear.

Also plan who is responsible for results. Jim Collins told our recent Good to Great event delegates that for every important activity there should be One Person Ultimately Responsible (O.P.U.R.).

‘To increase accountability, ensure ‘people know what they are the OPUR of.’ – Jim Collins


What are the 3 types of accountability?

A culture of accountability prioritises accountability practices across the whole organisation. There are 3 types of accountability:

1.     Role accountability

2.     Process Accountability

3.     Leading by example


Role accountability

What is expected of me in my role? In a culture of accountability this question can be answered by everyone who holds a role. Mark has a simple tool to help.

  • Write on a small card: Job title, KPI (i.e. gross margin as measured in $$) and three most significant outcomes for this role: (i.e. gross margin, customer satisfaction, number of 'A players' on operations team). 

Key points to note:

·       The card focuses on results, not activities.

·       Each card is created by role, not by person.

·       The card asks: What is your role funded to deliver? Also, priorities and the #1 KPI.

Cards are shared and discussed as a team and the executive team must be aligned. Remember, there is only one card per role (some staff may hold three cards).


Process accountability

Use design. Don’t let people feel like they’ve been thrown in the deep end. Build accountability elements into your leadership, planning, and execution processes. Mark offers the 5 rules to implement:

1.     Single point accountability – If more than one is accountable then no-one is. Clarify who is accountable for the result (see ‘O.P.U.R.’ above).

2.     Plans before action – Who, what, why, when before you start. Use the question “As measured by what?” – ie. What does good look like? 

3.     Transparency – Does everyone know what’s going on?

4.     Communication rhythms – Major projects and processes should have their own rhythms, as should your key metrics.

5.     Continuous Course Correction – Help people learn to think more steps ahead. And 2nd and 3rd order consequences.

 

Leading by example

Accountability starts at the top. All eyes are on you all the time and it shows the importance of leadership development. So ask yourself, what behaviours am I tolerating in others that are inconsistent in what I say I want?

In addition, Mark asks leaders to agree/disagree with these personal statements:

·       I live my own values (If observed for two days, what would others observe)

·       I honor my own priorities (Importance of family, exercise etc)

·       I am coached/mentored for my own growth (Am I leading by example as to how I am growing myself?).

·       I am accountable for my decisions and outcomes (Are you always accountable for your outcomes or do you blame or externalise?).

As Patrick Lencioni taught us in his interview on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, if the leader is not willing to hold people accountable then the others will think ‘well I’m not going to do your dirty work.’

As we know from social learning theory, people are highly influenced by and observant of the behaviour of leaders and colleagues. Leading by an example and having peer learning sessions on accountability can help a lot. 

kim-shaw

Case study: Creating a culture of accountability

Law executive Kim Shaw (pictured) leads 200 people as head of the Personal Legal Services division at law firm Maurice Blackburn. Working from home in Melbourne, she spoke to me late in 2021 about flexible work, accountability, and her commitment to learning.

Kim says a good culture of accountability exists in Maurice Blackburn, so productivity at the firm has held during the pandemic, and even improved in some areas. However, she’s always keen to learn more about accountability.

“There’s always room for me to learn and improve no matter how many years I’ve been in it,” she says. 

 

Challenge area

One challenge area she shares with many leaders both inside the firm and out is at the single point of accountability. That is, calling out sub-standard behaviour or results from an individual.

“For me it’s not so much being liked as being respected,” she says. “The harsh reality is that there will be instances where something is challenging to face. There might be your own set of factors that cause you to walk past something. You might have had a series of things that are difficult that week and you can’t face another one….”

 

Pandemic reduces spontanaeity

Kim says she likes to lead in a collaborative way, and virtual meetings, while positive in many ways, are transactional and reduce her ability to have “infill conversations.”

“I think there are some meetings which are good online and others not so good,” Kim says. “It’s efficient being online, but there are fewer spontaneous discussions.”

 

Flexible workplace is positive

For the foreseeable future, Kim will do a mixture of 2 and 3 days in the office and encourage her staff to be similarly flexible if they so desire. She says she’s happy to let people work full time in the office, hybrid, or remote (“that’s fine within reason, might want to see them once a month”).

She says people appreciate the opportunity for flexible work so the firm will benefit from it in a very positive way.

 

Summary

Accountability is about taking ownership of what you're personally responsible for in your role. It is not about the busyness or the time spent at your desk. It's about understanding what outcomes are yours, and yours alone. Once an employee or an executive understands this thoroughly, and works steadily to improve their results, they become a more productive and valuable part of your company.


Therefore, it is on leaders to make sure every employee has this mindset - a results mindset, knows what their role is, and what the expected outcomes of that role are. Leaders need to continue to grow and learn, and encourage their teams to do the same.

 

References:

1 & 2. CEO and chief researcher Roger Connors, Workplace Accountability Study, 2021, Partners in Leadership

3.  Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser, 2012, 'One Out of Every Two Managers Is Terrible at Accountability', HBR

4. Bain & Company, from Instride's 2021 article: '10 Employment Engagement Statistics You Need to Know in 2022.'

 

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Photo by Redd on Unsplash

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