Want Results? Fix Accountability!
Or: Why HR processes don’t lead to accountability.
The good news is that everyone from employee to manager, and from CEO to the board, agree. Accountability is prerequisite for results. For the board and the CEO, accountability ensures that the agreed business goals are delivered. And for the employee and the manager, accountability means empowerment, engagement and job satisfaction. In my blog “Good to Great: The Difference is Organisational Health”, I show how the author Jim Collins came to the same conclusion.
The bad news is that we don’t have enough of it. In fact, numerous studies show that we have even less than we think. The Workplace Accountability Study, covering 40 000 employees, shows that 70% of employees lack clarity on who is accountable for what. A study by AMA enterprise suggests that in 21% of surveyed companies, up to 50% of their employees show no accountability at all. A study published in Harvard Business Review by Overfield and Kaiser of 5 400 senior managers points out that 46% of managers are rated low on “Holds people accountable”.
The list goes on. But if you are like me, you probably don’t need more evidence. Because you recognize it in your daily work. Despite significant efforts to ensure accountability through clear strategies and goals, KPIs, evaluations and development plans, leadership team priorities, weekly follow-up and quarterly off-sites.
So if all these efforts have not given us the results we want, what are we missing? To answer this question, we first need to update our definition of accountability. Several of the above studies show that more than 80% of managers’ definition of accountability is “.. something which happens to you when something goes wrong.” In other words, a punitive response. A much more powerful definition is that accountability is a personal choice. I.e. something you do to yourself to achieve results. If every individual in the organization makes a personal choice to be accountable, then everyone’s activity will drive results in the direction of the stated strategy, overcoming obstacles, disagreement and special interests. Also, team members will be able to hold each other accountable, avoiding the situation where one team member holds back the entire team. And finally, a manager who has chosen to take accountability will be an engaged manager.
So how do we get to 100% accountability? It is clear that if accountability is a personal choice (and it is, whether we want it or not), accountability cannot be mandated. It is not an automatic outcome of top-down decisions, strategy documents, development plans or Town Hall meetings. Common sense tells us that each manager would need to be able to commit, based on a full understanding of the task and a chance to ask questions and input.
Of course, the task and its related goals also have to be based on a clear strategy, a data-based understanding of the situation and technical expertise in the relevant areas. But without an open and honest discussion, there will be no accountability, even if the technical details are perfect. And even the technical details are unlikely to be perfect without an open discussion.
So we need the open discussion to get to both accountability and to the right technical plan. But in a majority of cases, this does not happen. All research – as well as my own and others experience – suggest that disagreements and conflicts are not handled well enough in companies to allow for the right information to flow to the development of a plan and to allow for the managers to take ownership of the plans. Sometimes, decision are mandated from the top. But much more often, significant time goes into meetings, reviews and analyses, yet without turning the disagreements into better plans and strong ownership. Team members nod their ok in endless meetings, covering up their real disagreements, which they only voice fully outside the meeting.
Our inability to turn disagreements into better plans and more accountibility has been documented by various scholars. Abraham Zeleznik described it well when he wrote that since the 1980s, managers have become obsessed with managing their popularity, and were more concerned with greasing the skids, avoiding tough conversations, and maintaining a favorable image. He wrote that controversy and conflict about what needs to be done have been replaced with the ambiguity of politeness, political correctness and efforts not to offend.
Fortunately, the skills of achieving accountability through personal ownership across the organisation can be taught. These skills can become part of every interaction that a manager has with his organisation. From one-on-ones to team meetings. Every interaction is an opportunity to build accountability, and to turn disagreement into an advantage.
One of the key skills is described in my blog “Turning Disagreements into Competitive Advantage”. Another one is explained in the blog “Intolerance: The Ultimate Leadership Value”.