Creating a Culture of Accountability takes Courage

Accountability is a buzzword in business today and an issue that we often hear complained about in our work with leadership teams around the country. Our view is that high performance is founded on integrity and accountability, without those two elements the performance of any team, business or project will be undermined.

You can view accountability from two aspects – Being Accountable and having the structures, systems and processes that allow for an accountability to be managed effectively. The truth is you have to be the first to do the second well, in other words I am being accountable if I ensure that what I need to be able to deliver on my accountability is in place and being managed – clarity of role (mine and others), requisite agreements in place, effective measurement and reporting etc.

Most businesses put a lot of effort into setting up systems and processes to support accountability, and all of the leaders we work with say they are committed to creating a culture of accountability, but somehow the reality always falls short – a point made in Greg Bustin’s book on accountability. I am passionate about this gap.

In our work with leadership teams we suggest they consider their organisation as a web of agreements and that the rigorous management of those agreements represents a significant breakthrough in performance. There are both formal and informal agreements in any organisation, the formal ones being those that are captured in employee and client contracts, protocols, processes and policies etc. The informal being those promises and commitments that are being made as people work throughout their days and weeks. It is in the making and keeping of these agreements that results get produced. Weak or no agreement produces weak or no results, powerful, well thought-out, understood and managed agreements produce powerful results.

Agreements are where the rubber hits the road – and that’s where often the accountability problems lie. Too often I’ve seen leaders slip and slide around issues of accountability with one another, hoping that the leader of the group will deal with it – and thinking less of him/her if they don’t! In high performing teams no-one waits for someone else to deal with accountability and it’s a two-way street – in fact, there is a specific agreement that the team has which is to hold one another to account.

What is misunderstood about creating an environment of accountability is that it takes an enormous amount of courage on the part of leaders as it requires them giving their permission to be held to account. It needs to be said, not assumed. If I give you permission to hold me to account I am also committing to respond to conversations in a positive, straight and proactive way – not get defensive, offer up excuses and justifications, or be outright threatening or passive/aggressive.

It is largely due to the experience people have had of the latter reaction that the slipping and sliding occurs; it takes courage to step into a conversation in which you expect a difficult response. However, my experience has been that it is the conversations we are avoiding having that would actually make the most difference.

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