Why Accountability is a Loaded Word

“We’re going to start holding people accountable.”

How often have you heard this at work?  Accountability is a funny thing.  We all want a workplace where people are accountable.  The only thing more frustrating than someone who consistently fails to deliver is when the boss consistently fails to hold the person accountable.

I’ve noticed a trend; when people talk about accountability, they’re usually talking about the shortcoming of others.  Most organizations make the mistake of focusing on what they don’t want, instead of what they do want.

Here’s a common example: The boss is frustrated with people missing deadlines. She tells the team, “I’m going to hold you all accountable.  From now on, anyone who turns their work in late will be written up.”

It’s likely more people will start turning their work in on time.  But now, it’s a punitive culture, with people are trying to avoid reprimands.  It’s better than a total slackard culture, but quality and enthusiasm will likely be mediocre at best.

A more effective leadership narrative is to articulate the positive behaviors you want to see.

We were recently helping a client improve their culture and create more accountability.  Instead of repeatedly touting about accountability, we established five core behaviors.  Behaviors we wanted to see more of.  They include “We show up on time, prepared and ready, we give everyone a warm welcome, and we address problems in an honest and calm manner.”

They don’t just apply to one person; they apply to every single person, regardless of function or seniority level.

At first glance it might seem challenging to hold people accountable for qualitative behaviors like “warm welcome” or  “calm” manner.”

The secret is to show the team exactly what good looks like.  Training your team to understand in your company warm welcome means eye contact, a smile and a cheerful greeting that lets everyone know this is what we expect here.

Being specific about qualitative nuances is how you create a positive culture.  It provides the framework for accountability.

If people fall short, first address the problem as a training issue.

For example instead of, “Sarah is rude to customers.” You can report, “Sarah is having a hard time with the warm welcome.”  Then you show Sarah what warm welcomes looks like, and practice it with her until she can do it.

Now, Sarah is held accountable for her behavior because she has been trained to do it.

The same principle applies in families. I often see parents struggling to enforce rules like: no TV until homework is done or no phone at the table.  They’re both good rules, but in and of themselves, they won’t create the kind of positive culture most people want in their families. They also place the responsibility on the leaders (the parents) for enforcement.

When our kids were younger we established some positive core family behaviors.  One was, “we support each other’s dreams. ”  When someone shares an idea, you’re expected to respond positively, ask questions and help them figure out how to implement. If someone fails, you’re expected – regardless of your age – to help them rebound. Rather than reprimanding people for bad attitudes, we’re specific about what positive behavior looks like.  We train the team to do it, and every single person is expected to do it.

Accountability is critical if you want to create a high performing organization. If you want that organization to be positive, be specific about the behaviors and feelings  you’re aiming for. Accountability