Building a Culture of Accountability

Getting people to take ownership of their jobs starts with managers who own theirs.

By Randy Pennington Sep 1, 2015
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9Tools.jpg 0915cover.jpgAccountability is apparently a big problem. According to a 2013 survey of by AMA Enterprise, a division of the American Management Association, a fifth of business leaders believe that 30 to 50 percent of employees aren’t held accountable for their performance.

The steps for ensuring accountability are not new.

  • Set and communicate clear expectations.
  • Align individual and team goals with departmental and organizational strategies and vision.
  • Provide time, training, tools, and resources.
  • Empower people to succeed.
  • Provide recognition and feedback.
  • Take action when individuals and teams do not meet expectations.

And yet, the challenge continues.
Conventional wisdom holds that this is a worker problem. Participants in my management and leadership programs lament the declining work ethic and lack of loyalty. They talk of employees who merely rent their jobs rather than owning them. For them, the solution is to get tougher and dole out discipline.
But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the lack of accountability is a leadership problem?

Mindset Matters

The difference between leaders who inspire ownership and those from whom employees merely trade time for money has less to do with strategies and techniques than it does with the mindset with which they approach their responsibilities. The best leaders are guided by the following beliefs:

  • Employees want to do a good job and succeed.
  • Discipline should be taught and sustained rather than used to mandate compliance.
  • Relationships—not position—are the ultimate tool for influencing the performance of others.

Does It Work?

Think of a teacher, mentor, or coach who meant a great deal to you and answer the following questions:

  • Did that person expect more of you or less of you?
  • Did he or she treat you as if you wanted to succeed or simply do as little as possible to get by?
  • Did she or he actively help you acquire the knowledge, skills, and resources you needed to succeed?
  • Were you more likely or less likely to do everything in your power to meet his or her expectations?
  • If you didn’t meet those expectations, were you more likely or less likely to respond positively and accept accountability for your performance and results?
  • Does that person still influence you today?

One last question: Was your response to them and performance based on the authority of their position or on your relationship?

Leaders who struggle with other’s accountability view their job as mandating compliance. Those who get accountability right know that most people want to do great work. They view their job as creating an environment where commitment and self-discipline are volunteered.
Here are three things you can do right now to build a culture of volunteered accountability:

  • Adjust your mindset. There may be a few people on your team who don’t want to do a good job, but that number is very small—probably 2 to 5 percent. Stop thinking of the other 95 to 98 percent as part of the problem.
  • Make sure you are doing your part. Be honest with yourself on areas where you are not fulfilling your responsibility and make a plan to improve. If you aren’t sure, ask a direct report you trust for feedback.
  • Focus relentlessly on relationships. The difference between mandated compliance and volunteered commitment can often be traced to the quality of the relationship between the leader and follower. People will do what they are told to do because it is their job. They will run through walls to succeed for a leader they trust and admire.

Employees show up on their first day at work wanting to take ownership and succeed. Somewhere along the way, some will decide to do as little as possible. How many employees take that path may very well depend on you. 

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations achieve positive results in a world of accelerating change. Visit www.penningtongroup.comor email for more information.

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