Want Accountability In the Workplace? Do this, or else

Managers are not cops, overlords, cheerleaders or shepherds. They are people who through luck, political savvy, tenure, circumstance, talent, or training have achieved a level in an organization that gives them powers over those that report to them. Managers have a responsibility to generate results with their employees, yet all too often they just aren’t that good. According to Gallup, seven of ten do not have the skills to be a successful manager.  A recent survey conducted by Careerbuilder.com determined that 58% of managers have not actually been trained to perform as one, so it should come as no surprise that we often confuse some of the most important roles of the manager.

One glaring example is the consistent misuse and abuse of what it means to “make one accountable.” As consultants we have had the opportunity to listen to the challenges that managers face at work and one particularly common refrain is, “we need to get some accountability around here!” Instantly this conjures up images of lackadaisical employees who don’t care and generally speaking don’t get the job done – and that somehow “accountability” will fix the issue. It’s an accountability problem, not a management problem, not a planning problem, not a measurement problem nor a culture problem. It’s an accountability problem.

What exactly does it mean? There are two fundamental definitions separated by a subtle change in origin; Manager imposed accountability, and self-selected accountability.

Defining Accountability

A “definition” of accountability from Investopedia.com describes accountability as follows:

“Accountability is when an individual or department experiences consequences for their performance or actions. Accountability is essential for an organization and for a society. Without it, it is difficult to get people to assume ownership of their own actions because they believe they will not face any consequences.”

In our experience this is the more common understanding of what accountability means, and it is wrong. Google “accountability synonym” and one of the early suggestions is the word “obedience.”  No wonder we struggle with managing accountability.  If this definition is right and the managers are lacking “accountability” in their organizations, why then can’t managers simply create consequences so that employees are more obedient?  They can’t because it is not that simple, it doesn’t work like that, and it certainly doesn’t last.

Manager-imposed accountability

A manager chooses to install accountability and implements a new measure of their staff, complete with negative consequences should the number fail to materialize. The manager presides over their employees and designs a mechanism to apply consequences to coerce accountable and obedient behavior. What tends to happen is that employees become accountable to “the number,” not performance per se.

For example, in a milk production plant the quality staff almost always mixed more expensive milk fat into their product than was necessary because there was negative consequences for having too little.  The metric showed good levels of performance and terrific accountability, yet the business gave away 10% of profit because of it. In a sales organization, sales representatives spent more than half their time visiting prospects that had little intention of buying from them because they were accountable to “visits” and not revenue or margin.  Sales productivity was lauded, and the sales representatives were “accountable” but sales cost as a percent of sales was increasing.

If the numbers are designed to generate obedience and consequences you can expect the numbers to get better even if the business doesn’t. Sandbagging budgets, fudging numbers, finger pointing, conflicting numbers all are evidence of failed motivational, manager-imposed accountability.

Self-selected accountability

Suppose a manager worked with their staff and designed a measurement system that was intended to provide information to the team? Information that guided actions and energy for problem solving and better results. Suppose employees were more concerned about performance than they were about consequences?  What would happen then?

Sustained accountability is not created by an imposition of fear of consequences. True accountability rests on the idea that consequences and doing the right thing (presumably the replacement for “obedient”) relies on the decision of the individual. A manager must create an environment where an employee willfully chooses to be accountable. Cambridge defines accountability as:

“the fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it…”. 

This second definition is better because it implies that being accountable is the choice of the individual and is not defined by the consequences. True accountability is not enforced or imposed, it is chosen by the person or group that chooses to be accountable.

In a pet food factory, operators had only one requirement to their managers. It was to account for the variance between their current performance and the capability of the equipment. Managers were trained to thank employees for reconciling downtime and providing details that would lead to process improvements. Measurement in this case was used for information purposes to reduce downtime and operators were empowered to provide that information. Managers used the information to problem solve and uptime improved by 20%.  The results sustained because the operators became part of the solution and chose to be accountable.

While most managers struggle with accountability, those that achieve sustained results tend to be managers that create environments that allow employees to choose it.