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The accountability challenge

December 4, 2020 -  By
Notebook with "no excuses" post-it note (Photo: XtockImages/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Photo: XtockImages/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Many managers struggle with the issue of accountability, especially during a time when good people are hard to come by. They reason that it is virtually impossible to hold people accountable, since attempts to do so will naturally result in increased employee turnover. While this reasoning may appear to be sound, I’d like to offer a different perspective on this topic and provide some much-needed guidance for managers facing this challenge.

The truth is accountability does not necessarily lead to an increase in employee turnover. In fact, sometimes accountability results in a decrease in employee turnover. Let me explain. The best way to think about accountability is with respect to culture. Accountability is something that shows up in cultural norms, either in a strong way where it’s pervasive or in a weak way where it’s largely absent. The two different cultures are polar opposites with significant differences in terms of outcomes. In other words, accountability is not a management issue, but rather a cultural issue.

When there is a culture of accountability, accountability is not something to be enforced by a manager. Instead, accountability is reinforced by peers on their respective teams. In a team structure, each individual feels responsible for the results of the team. Managers rarely need to intervene. People working in this cultural environment tend to adopt an ownership mentality, and they tend to be more engaged, more productive, more careful and more satisfied overall. They are less likely to bail on their teammates, reducing turnover.

I’ve written about teams in previous articles of this series and would encourage you to read back through those articles if you’re interested in learning more about how to develop more cohesive teams in your organization.

On the other hand, when accountability is lacking in an organization’s culture, managers are in a no-win situation. Without peer accountability among teammates, individuals become the sole responsibility of their managers.

Accountability looks more like discipline than learning. Instead of wildcard behaviors being corrected by peers within a team environment, managers are forced to intervene or ignore the issue for fear of losing a desperately needed employee. What a terrible position to be in as a manager.

Managers attempting to enforce policies and procedures where there is a lack of accountability are often fighting a losing battle. Inevitably, managers simply ignore violations (that’s why there is a lack of accountability in the first place). This results in an inconsistent approach that breeds favoritism and encourages even more violations to occur. Good people won’t enjoy such a work environment, resulting in higher employee turnover. However, underperformers may appreciate the lack of accountability and remain with the organization for many years.

At this point, you may be wondering how to develop a culture of accountability. My first recommendation is to begin to develop a team-based management structure for all of the reasons mentioned above. Work to implement team goals and helpful metrics, teach problem-solving skills and invest in team-building activities and incentives for goal achievement among the team. If teams are functioning well, accountability will be alive and present with minimal management intervention.

My second recommendation is to realize that a culture of accountability may be undermined by leaders who set bad examples. I see this all the time. Talk is cheap. If you want to promote a culture of accountability, leaders must be the first ones to hold themselves accountable for following through on whatever they commit to. It’s simply wishful thinking to expect your people to think like an owner if the leaders of your organization fail to do so themselves.

In this article series on teamwork, I’ve been leaning heavily on best-selling author Patrick Lencioni’s book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” In this book, he explains an interesting phenomenon: The more leaders hold themselves and their teams accountable, the less likely they are to have to hold individuals accountable and vice-versa. This point reinforces the idea that a culture of accountability starts at the top.

Now go forth.

Phil Harwood headshot

About the Author:

Harwood is a Managing Partner with GrowTheBench and Pro-Motion Consulting. Reach him at Phil@GrowTheBench.com. He is a Landscape Industry Certified Manager, NALP Trailblazer, NALP Consultant, and Certified Snow Professional. Harwood holds a BA in Marketing and Executive MBA with Honors from Michigan State University.

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