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How to Build a Culture of Accountability in Your Organization

by: Shiv Sharma
How to Build a Culture of Accountability in Your Organization

Accountability is the ability of a person to accept responsibility for their actions. No matter what industry, size of company, or country (especially for remote teams); increasing accountability is a work in progress for all organizations. It’s not a one-time project that you can finish and dust off your hands. 

On the surface, it seems quite a straightforward problem to solve. You tell everyone in your team what they need to do and by when. You follow up with them and voila! However, like all problems that revolve around human behavior, accountability is a complex subject. 

How is it that some companies continue to excel in making their employees accountable but others struggle with it? One word answer – culture

Accountability is contagious and once it’s ingrained in a teams’s culture, it rubs onto other people. You can take some specific steps to build a culture of accountability in your organization. Let’s learn more about them:

1. Start from the top

Accountability comes from the top. This is perhaps the most quoted statement about accountability. What does this “top” mean? Ask this question to anyone and chances are that they’ll say the top management. However, there’s another layer above it that people tend to miss – the organization itself.

Organizations need to be accountable to their customers and third parties. They should take ownership of their actions, even if that goes against traditional business practices. Companies don’t always have to put a rosy facade in front of their customers. People respect businesses that are transparent and don’t shy away from accepting their mistakes. 

For example, when KFC had to shut down its restaurants in the UK because they ran out of chicken (imagine the scale of mistake), instead of passing the buck they owned their mistake with a full-page newspaper advertisement

accountability-big-companies

People appreciated KFC’s ingenious humor and open apology. 

When organizations take ownership of their actions, they set a precedent for their employees. This is the single most important thing any company can do to build a culture of accountability. 

2. Create a safety net to encourage accountability

accountability-safety-net

Creating a safety net in your team means empowering your teammates to raise problems and acknowledge mistakes. If anyone in your team takes responsibility for a mistake, they should be appreciated for raising the red flag rather than brushing dirt under the carpet. 

When employees aren’t scared of owning their mistakes, they’ll stop passing the buck and coming up with excuses. 

This doesn’t happen organically in any team. Leaders have to consciously instill such culture by leading from the front and reinforcing the idea constantly. 

Here’s a great example of a company celebrating mistakes. Huntsman is a chemical company in North East England. One of the scaffolders that they had hired from a company by mistake discharged chemicals into the local river by unknowingly pressing a button.  Nobody saw him do that, but he went to the control room and owned his mistake. The scaffolding company promptly fired him but Huntsman insisted on reinstating him for their project. When the guy went back to Huntsman, they held a party to celebrate. 

Because the scaffolder had promptly alerted the control room, the damage was minimized and significant costs were saved. Anyone can make an honest mistake, but what you do after that is what makes the difference. 

3. Hire accountable people

While it’s good to focus on increasing the accountability of your existing team, we shouldn’t forget the importance of hiring accountable people. Like we discussed, accountability is contagious and an influx of accountable people will help existing teammates as well. 

During an interview ask questions that unveil how much ownership the candidate takes for their previous mistakes. Ask questions like “What was one project in your previous company that failed because of you?” and “What did you learn from your biggest mistake at work?”. If the candidate tries to sugarcoat their answer, pass the buck to someone else for their failure or cheekily avoid the question; probe further. People who are accountable give candid responses to such questions. 

When hiring for leadership roles, you can even ask if they have ever taken responsibility for someone else’s mistake at work? Accountable leaders own the mistakes of their team. 

4. Articulate goals and responsibilities clearly

goal-clarity-inceases-accountability

 “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”

Brené Brown

You can’t expect accountability from your team if you haven’t clearly defined responsibilities for them. This is especially a problem in smaller companies and emerging startups where a typical employee wears many hats. In such cases, it’s critical for employees to know what their core responsibilities are. They need to ensure that their expectations align with their managers. 

Work tracking tools are especially useful for this. They allow you to assign specific tasks, set due dates and follow up on the progress of projects. Once a task is assigned in a work tracking tool, it becomes crystal clear who is responsible for it and by when they are expected to complete it. All task-related communication is managed in one place so that team members are aligned. Such tools also provided automated updates, reducing the need for follow-up meetings. 

Use a work tracking tool to boost accountability in your team. 

5. Ensure results are consistent with the performance

Earlier, we discussed creating a safety net in your team so that people aren’t penalized for acknowledging their mistakes. Some teams interpret this to mean that mistakes should have no consequences for people. This is incorrect.   

People shouldn’t be punished for owning up to mistakes. However, they should be evaluated on how they learn from them. Otherwise, the entire exercise of developing accountability becomes futile.

Suppose your email marketer sends a newsletter to the wrong list of subscribers, and they acknowledge it right away. You shouldn’t punish them for owning their honest mistake. Ask them what measures will they take to avoid it in the future. If the mistake happens again, ensure that their performance is evaluated accordingly. 

6. Make meetings actionable

start-with-an-action-plan

One thing that you can start doing right away to build accountability is to make meetings actionable. An average manager spends 35% of their time in meetings. It’s a great place to start developing a culture of accountability in your team.

Ensure that every meeting ends with an action plan so that each team member knows exactly what they need to work on. Use a work tracking tool to create the tasks as they pop up during the meeting and assign them in real-time. This ensures that nothing falls through the cracks. This also makes follow-up meetings shorter and more meaningful. 

Another advantage of this practice is that you’ll realize which meetings are redundant. As a rule of thumb, any meeting that doesn’t end with an action plan isn’t worth having. If the purpose of the meeting is to simply follow-up and update, there are more effective alternatives to do that; from emails to online collaboration tools.

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