A Persistent Problem

Managers have wanted to know how to increase accountability forever. Many different approaches have been tried. Managers have been told that their employees need to rise above victimization and their circumstances and take action and ownership. They’ve been told that it’s what you say and how you say it that makes people accountable. They’ve been told to set clear expectations up front. They’ve been told to specify. To tell people what is wanted. And still, accountability is a problem.

Victor Lipman, in writing in Forbes magazine, notes a Harvard Business Review article entitled: One Out of Every Two Managers Is Terrible at Accountability. The study reports 46% of high-level managers were rated poorly on the measure, “Holds people accountable – is firm when they don’t deliver.” TIBICO Spotfire’s Trends and Outliers Blog notes that: “Accountability has been the most important issue facing marketing executives this year, according to the Association of National Advertisers (ANA). In fact, accountability and measurement have remained consistent concerns since 2006…”

So with accountability being taught Management 101 courses for decades, why is it still a problem?

A New Model of Accountability

After intensive research into the mechanics of accountability, it has become apparent that accountability is a choice. That’s not news. But what is new, is that accountability is not simply a personal decision, but one that is influenced by a myriad of factors both internal and external to the individual. FirstStep has completed eighteen months of intensive study into accountability and has identified 51 factors influencing the decision to be accountable when asked to explain or justify results. The following model provides a structure into which the factors have been organized.

Individual Level
• Self-perceptions
• Self-image
Team Level
• Embeddedness
• Roles and Expectations
Organization Level
• Organization Factors
• Leadership and Supervision
• Supporting Mechanisms
• Process Orientation

Results-Driven Accountability

Most organizations rely on a Results-Driven Accountability Model. They use it for the purposes of holding someone accountable, identifying who was at fault, why things went wrong, assigning blame, and punishing the people responsible. Note that responsibility and accountability are not the same thing.

If things go well, this is a good model. Unfortunately, things don’t always go so well. A recent Project Management Institute research study found that approximately 35% of major
projects fail. Other studies have that rate as high as 61%. Failures aren’t always due to poor planning, poor implementation, or blatant mistakes. Most of the time failures occur because
things change. Today things are changing faster than ever.

Regardless of the causes of failure, its consequences are often severe resulting in demotions, terminations, and at the very least damage to reputations. The data are clear, punishment
and castigation do not make things better. In fact, they make things worse. It’s not surprising that many people engage in a wide range of ego-protecting responses like excuse making, pointing fingers, obfuscation, stalling and out and out lies when confronted with their failures. It should be obvious to most that the results-driven model of accountability isn’t working. A different model is needed.

The First Step Accountability Solution: Focus on Learning

It is obvious that a new definition and concept of accountability are needed if people and organizations are to benefit from it. There must be a tangible positive outcome of
accountability. It cannot simply be a means to deride or castigate people for failure.

The new definition started with contemplation about the benefits of results. The most obvious benefit is learning. If we know the steps that led to success, we can repeat them. If
we know the course that led to failure, we can avoid them. When accountability is about learning, it becomes a positive, that adds to an organization’s knowledge base. By surfacing
lessons and sharing them, the knowledge becomes tacit. Something that can benefit anyone in the organization.

The only thing people learn from punishment is how to avoid the punisher. That means physically avoiding someone or coming up with excuses, casting blame, delaying, or
obfuscation to misdirect the ire of those seeking a scapegoat.

With organization-learning as the intended outcome of accountability, a new definition was

Accountability is a discussion about one’s decisions and actions and the effect those decisions or actions had on the outcomes of a project or task. The primary purpose of the accountability discussion is to surface knowledge gained from the decisions, actions, and results. And then, determining how that knowledge will be applied in the future.

Making Accountability a Double Loop Learning Experience

Double-loop learning looks beyond immediate impact to long-term effectiveness by challenging the underlying assumptions about processes or systems. It goes beyond the
current problem or project and exploring future opportunities.

Accountability can be a good tool for doing that. At the outset of a project, the person who is going to be ultimately accountable for learnings gained from the project must own that
responsibility. During the planning and implementation phases, he or she is obligated to share his or her thoughts about the planned approach and subsequent actions to be taken.
Input and feedback from others is likely to improve the plan and implementation.

Accountability discussions are scheduled at assigned check points. Again, the sharing of thought processes, input, and feedback occur. A final accounting occurs at the conclusion of
the project. A discussion of all the lessons learned and how they can be applied to future projects occurs at this session.

An additional benefit to this model is increased team engagement. Team member participation in the accountability sessions increases their ownership of the success of the
project. Cooperation and collaboration increases team cohesion and morale. Successes are shared. Failures are lessened.

And even when projects fail… the lessons learned will help future teams be successful.

There are other upsides to this accountability process:

1. The organization improves its processes, systems, and outcomes
2. The oragnization increases it intellectual capital
3. Employees become more engaged and more productive
4. Morale improves and the organization’s culture with it
5. Customers and potential employees notice the difference
6. The brand gains value
Is there any manager who would not like to experience at least one of these results?

What Will It Take?

First, there has to be a redefinition and repurposing of accountability within the organization. That message must be communicated by influential employees at all levels throughout the organization, not just the senior executives. Management and supervision have to buy into the new purpose of accountability and model appropriate behaviors.

Next, accountability mechanisms have to be designed specifically tailored to match the organization’s culture. That is followed by teambuilding and interpersonal skill building
where people learn how to effectively identify problems and generate solutions, collaborate in person or electronically, confront and resolve conflicts amicably, give and receive feedback
in ways that generate learning. Accountability is about soft skills and thinking.

HR must reevaluate the rewards and recognition programs as well as establish flexible total rewards programs that address the multifaceted needs of a multigenerational workforce.

Finally, once started, it’s essential to stay the course. These are difficult things to accomplish. They will take time. There will be mistakes. There will be anguish and emotions. Expect them, accept them, display empathy, and stick to it.