Creating a culture of accountability

Creating a culture of accountability
By Paul Clifford

Accountability is a word that many organisations find difficult to define for themselves. "We want to create a culture of accountability" they say but when asked to define what this means, what it looks like and how to get there, the answers are challenging and the conversation to get to that clarity can take time.  

Multiple things need to be in place in an organisation before it can rightfully claim to possess a culture of accountability.  This includes clarity about where the responsibility lies for task completion and outcomes, and the existence of processes and structure that facilitate rather than undermine people accepting their role and responsibilities.

Throughout any working day, at each point where action needs to be taken or has been taken, we have a choice as to the accountability we wish to take. When things go wrong that were our responsibility we can choose to accept our contribution or we can deny, rationalise, minimise and/or deflect blame to others.

Our willingness to accept responsibility, be open about our contribution and face what we need to do differently can be more than just the sum of our character.  The context within which we are operating can be a significant influencer on our decisions.

HR reform to increase accountability

One example of a process that can arguably undermine a culture of accountability is forced rankings in performance management. For years Accenture used this as the hallmark of its performance process but in a stunning move it has now abandoned it - stunning given the sheer size of Accenture with this decision impacting on more than 300,000 workers in 120 countries.

Forced rankings pit employee against employee. Your performance is not studied against your contribution, it's evaluated against your relative contribution. If you want to achieve an "outstanding" or similar above average rating with the accompanying rise in salary, you are going to need to find a way to outperform your colleagues because in the forced ranking system only a limited number of 'outstanding' ratings will be handed out. This means you are potentially going to be celebrating the errors of your colleagues rather than helping them to grow and develop. It also means you are more likely to deny accountability, minimise and deflect blame to others in order to give yourself the best chance of securing the highest rating.

Given the impact, Accenture have undoubtedly been planning this move to abandon forced rankings for a while and in my view it’s a very sensible one. Whilst not the panacea to accountability, it does take away a significant structural impediment to creating the right culture to foster it.

The culture of the collective

Organisational performance requires collective efforts not individual efforts. It requires individuals going beyond what I need to do today to what we need to do today.  Leaders need to foster the type of culture where employees mentor, share information, give each other feedback and importantly, buy-in to the obligation to take accountability because if they don't it impacts on the collective, not just them as individuals.

Whilst many employees will have an inherent desire to put the organisation ahead of themselves, the more impediments an organisation puts in place through its structures and procedures the more it quashes that natural desire.  Organisations need to foster collective intention - to facilitate the natural desire of many to act collectively and to incentivise those who don't naturally think that way.  

It becomes imperative that organisations take a good look at the processes and structures within their organisation and identify those that are facilitating a culture of denial, minimisation and deflection of accountability. Individuals are not immune to their context. We can't assign selfish behaviour to character alone. We must understand that the organisational infrastructure contributes to our decisions about the accountability we are prepared to take which in turn impacts on whether the organisation sees pockets of strong performance or a coordinated effort of the collective to maximise its potential.


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Guest Thursday, 23 May 2019