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A student who protests “but the dog ate my homework” has little to no chance of being taken seriously. The assumption is that the student has not completed her homework, and is using that as an excuse to avoid being accountable for her (lack of) actions.
In our daily lives, we hear many such excuses meant to deflect blame. Deflecting blame and not taking responsibility for mistakes are symptomatic of a lack of accountability in an organisation; a problem that has consequences for the organisation’s credibility as a whole.
The blame game
When there is a lack of accountability in a company, blame is shifted from one person to another. Employees look to cover their own backs and don’t take responsibility for their actions.
This prevents anyone from learning from their mistakes. This also means that problems continue in the company until a concerted effort is made to resolve them. For example, a lack of accountability in banks in the United States meant that despite causing the 2008 financial crisis, very few top bankers were held responsible for their actions. It was anger from the taxpayers who bailed out the banks that led to changes in the structure of banks.
Sean Pomeroy wrote in TalentCulture:
“You’ll hear the phrase from a lot of politicians: ‘Mistakes were made.’ It’s so popular books have been written about it. This phrase makes great use of passive voice. It speaks to the general lack of accountability in a system. Does the person uttering it want to cover their own skin, or are they part of a system that has no way of holding anyone responsible for their actions? Either way, it’s a cop-out. It acknowledges problems only after they’ve been discovered, holds no one responsible for them, and tries to move on from those problems without anyone actually having learned anything.”
What constitutes accountability
Creating accountability is about creating a culture where responsibility is valued, and creating incentives for people to act responsibly.
But this can be a challenge. It is human nature to focus more on the negatives than the positives. One of the reasons why employees avoid being known as being accountable for a certain project is because failures are usually remembered for a longer time than successes, and admitting to a mistake can be career-ending.
Hence, people are reluctant to take responsibility for their mistakes – they are quick to take credit for successes, but slow to acknowledge mistakes, or to admit that they have made them.
However, research indicates that holding people accountable for their work results in better problem solving, decision making, higher satisfaction, and more cooperation, as people are clear about what their commitments are and what they need to do to fulfil them. Employees who are held accountable are more motivated. This group of people are great assets to the company as they make the company more productive and efficient.
One way to amend some of the perceived negative connotations of accountability is to be specific in your requirements and offer clear incentives to those who are accountable.
For example, our Malaysian culture places very little importance on the value of time, so meetings often start and end late. Lateness is often blamed on traffic or other external factors. This shows a lack of accountability for your actions and a lack of respect for other people’s time. So, instead of telling people not to be late for a meeting, set a rule that anyone who is late by five minutes or more has to pay RM2 to the other attendees.
To reward those who make the extra effort in running meetings smoothly, ask others to nominate an “exceptional” participant for every meeting.
To encourage employees to reflect on their own behaviours, ask them to list three specific ways in which they could be more accountable to the organisation and get an accountability buddy to check in on their progress.
Cultivating a culture of accountability
Just recently, I was privileged to be part of a Leaderonomics accountability culture project to drive home the message of accountability to all Leaderonomers (as we call ourselves here).
Following on from this, here are three ways to increase accountability in the workplace:
- Set clear goals and structured ways to achieve them. Here is a lesson I have learnt from cramming for my Additional Mathematics exam: when a problem is broken down into subsections, it is easier to solve. Involve others in setting your goals, so that you have an understanding of how to manage the expectations of others.
- Make sure that employees don’t associate accountability with only negative outcomes. Recognise them for being accountable and set incentives for taking responsibility and successfully carrying out tasks within a time frame.
- As a manager, make it clear how the success or failure of an activity will be measured. Communicate clearly to your employees what the upsides and downsides are for succeeding and failing.
The abovementioned three ways to increase accountability can also be applied to your personal life. Divide your personal resolutions into manageable weekly goals and hold yourself accountable.
All the best in your accountability efforts, both in your personal life and in the workplace!
Listen to our 4-part series on “Creating a culture of accountability” by Joseph Tan:
- Raise Your Game: Beware Of Gangsters
- Raise Your Game: Leading Talent
- Raise Your Game: Growing Pains
- Raise The Game: May The Force Be With You