We’ve all heard about and read about accountability. Many of us have studied it. I’ve studied it for the pure intention of applying my learnings to transition my teams to adopt accountability as a part of their team cultures. But like Mao Zedong so wisely observed, reading doesn’t quite prepare you to actually revolutionize your culture to incorporate accountability in a sustainable way.
In this article, I intend to share my experiences to equip you with the foresight to map a path to your own cultural revolution. This article assumes you understand the principles of accountability and already embrace the value it brings to an organization. I’ll also address the necessary phases an organization and its people will go through to create a culture of accountability.
Phase 1: Desensitization
In this article (including the title), I’ve already used the word “accountability” six times. This is to desensitize you to the negative connotations you probably have of the word. For most people, those are six cringeworthy syllables. We’ve all observed many people and organizations that avoid using the word. We hide behind redirects like, “it’s an overused word,” “it’s perceived negatively,” and “it puts too much pressure on people.”
For some reason, we’re raised in both corporate and startup environments to avoid the word. We even begin to fear it. We have to embrace the fact that there is nothing to fear. Let’s look at the definition: “the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.”
When you use this word, some people will be energized. Others will cringe and run for the hills. It’s a part of the process. The first phase of the revolution is to frequently speak about accountability in terms of its synonym, responsibility, to desensitize people to the fear they’ve built up over time.
Phase 2: Intention
As your team begins to learn that accountability is just responsibility in a scary mask, they’ll warm up to the word.
It’s time to declare your intention. Establish a culture of accountability to drive company performance, increase individual growth and make the company a more enjoyable place to work.
Make all three intentions clear. When one person knows what to do and knows what others will do, they can reduce ambiguity in groups and deliver on his or her commitments, and everyone else will end up finding more enjoyment in their work. Clearly and concisely articulate your vision. Tell your team exactly what you expect so they can buy-in and join you in the revolution.
Phase 3: Reflection
If you’ve lived in a culture that was not focused on accountability, chances are you are not a highly accountable person. You’re a product of the culture. You’re holding a “get out of jail free” card. By desensitizing everyone to “the word” and making your intentions clear, you’ve cashed it in.
All of a sudden, you’re the de facto role model. Envisioning something is not the same as doing something and it definitely doesn’t feel like what we thought it would feel like. Envisioning breaking your arm does not prepare you for breaking your arm. Knowing you’ll need to endure some pain you haven’t previously endured, however, is an essential preparatory step. So be prepared.
Plan to be honest with your team. Be open about the fact that you are excited for the challenge ahead, that you will fail at times, but that you’re committed to the revolution and will endure and persevere.
Phase 4: Pushback
So we’ve desensitized people to “the word,” we’ve made intentions clearly known, and we’ve shown that we’re committed even though we’re not perfect. Clearly, it’s time to turn our words into action. Begin to speak in terms of “Tuesday at 5 p.m.” instead of “in a few days.” Begin to ask probing questions, eliminating the risk of ambiguity. Announce when people are overperforming and underperforming. People in your company will begin eradicating ambiguity in responsibilities so they can hold people, and be held, accountable. They will accept metrics as they are without “adding color” to persuade interpretation. People will share appreciation, and feel appreciated, based on understandable criteria.
And people will start pushing back.
Like anything in life, change is hard. Our human nature prompts us to resist change. During this phase, empathize, embrace, and encourage. Take time to meet with people both one-on-one and in group settings to facilitate conversation and them a chance to get things off their chest. Then find ways, using your personal style, to encourage them to see your vision of a culture of accountability and guide them there with a personal touch.
Phase 5: Management
Generally, there are two types of issues in the workplace: those that can be fixed and those that cannot. An example of an issue that can be fixed is that of a leaky faucet. An example of an issue that cannot be fixed is that of someone’s mood. When you can’t fix an issue, you have to manage it. Improve the situation when you need, back off when you don’t, and continuously monitor to know when to do either.
Maintaining a culture of accountability is something that needs to be managed. If people slip into old habits, you can’t simply fix it and never look at it again. You need to spend energy to improve the situation, and continue to monitor so you’re quick to react if you’re needed again. Obviously, proactive measures reduce the energy you’ll have to spend resolving issues. Culture management, however, is a separate topic that requires an article of its own.
Living and working in a culture of accountability feels fundamentally different than being in a culture of non-accountability. Once you’re there, you’ll feel the difference — and everyone else will, too.