“Apples simply don’t grow for me.” I thought to myself as I looked at the spindly bare twigs poking out of the thin trunk. I had planted an apple tree in my back yard two years previously and was getting frustrated with its lack of production. Having bought an apple tree, I dug a hole, put it in the hole, made sure it had lots of water, and two years later not a single apple had grown on it. “There must be something wrong with the tree.” I concluded.
Some time later I discovered the type of conditions apple trees need compared to the conditions I had provided for my unfruitful tree. Apple trees need:
- Full sunshine: I planted mine in a partly shady spot
- Good soil: My back yard was mostly clay
- Not too much rain: I was living in Vancouver, BC—one of the rainiest places on earth
- Cold winter: Vancouver rarely gets much below freezing
Is It The Person Or The Conditions?
I find that most managers treat the people they lead like I treated my little apple tree. They hire people, give them a desk and computer, provide some general instructions, and then become surprised and frustrated when their people don’t produce the right results. When people aren’t producing as expected, managers instinctively believe there must be something wrong with their staff member instead of considering whether the manager has provided the right conditions for success.
Similarly, most managers tend to treat hiring people like they’re shopping for an apple tree: “Gee, I hope I pick a productive one.” They are inclined to believe that being accountable—taking ownership of results—is a trait you either have or don’t have by the time you enter the workforce. In other words, “It’s the person.” Is it possible, however, that it could also be the environment? Could managers be unwittingly withholding the conditions employees need to be accountable?
Of course, some people naturally take more ownership of results than others because of their personality or because of the way they were raised. Some varieties of apple trees will, in fact, grow in Vancouver. But most don’t grow very well. Likewise, there are certain conditions that, if present, make it possible for everyone to take accountability for their assignments and make it much more likely that they will succeed.
Managing the Relationship And The Contract
Employment is both a relationship and a contract. The relationship is about how managers and staff feel about and act toward each other. The contract is the implied deal that is being made—the exchange of value.
Some managers are more concerned with the relationship: “I can’t tell them they’re doing a bad job or else I’ll hurt their feelings and they won’t like me.” These managers don’t bring out the best in those they lead because they don’t challenge them to reach their potential.
Other managers are more concerned with the contract: “The workplace is no place for ‘feelings.’ I’m paying them to do a job so they’d better do it.” These managers don’t bring out the best in those they lead because human beings—all human beings—are driven by their feelings, even in the workplace. People either underperform, or they end up quitting, if their leaders don’t meet their emotional needs. These include a need for purpose, psychological safety, achievement, and the need to feel cared about.
Leaders—people who others willingly follow—manage both the relationship and the contract to help individuals and the organization get the right results more often. They do this by providing an environment that reinforces the six conditions of accountability.
6 Conditions of Organizational Accountability
Accountability is taking ownership of results and working to achieve better results in the future. Individuals can learn to take more accountability for their own lives by following the 3 Steps of Personal Accountability. But taking accountability for the results that someone else asks you to deliver is a different situation. Effective leaders give people the best chance of getting the results the leader asks them to deliver by providing the following essential six conditions of accountability.
Shared Vision of Success
People cannot take accountability for results unless they are crystal clear about what results they are working towards.
Although just about every company on the planet has a mission statement written down somewhere, only 22% of employees believe their senior managers have a clear direction for the organization, and fewer still (13%) believe their senior managers communicate effectively. Clearly there is a huge disconnect between how well business leaders think they communicate the organization’s goals and strategy, and reality.
Senior management teams must first agree among themselves about what success looks like. Then they must clearly articulate this vision in simple, clear language to inspire employees to emotionally enlist in the organization’s cause.
Senior management must also articulate the organization’s strategy, including its top three or four strategic priorities, in simple language to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction. Research has shown that 95% of employees are unaware of, or do not understand, their organization’s strategy. How can employees possibly take accountability for results when they don’t know the plan to get those results?
Once the organization’s purpose and strategy are defined, senior managers must also answer the question “What does good look like?” This question should be answered in regard to products and services in the form of quality standards, and in regard to desired behaviors in the form of values and leadership competencies.
Assessing Condition 1 In Your Organization
Try the following experiment. The next time your team meets, ask them to silently write the answers to the following questions:
- What is our organization’s purpose?
- What are the top 3 or 4 results we need to achieve to fulfil our purpose? (In other words, what is our strategy?)
- What are the 3 or 4 most impactful leadership behaviors we must all demonstrate to deliver the right results?
If your team can’t answer those questions verbatim, then you have work to do.
People cannot take accountability for results unless they have input into how to achieve those results.
Imagine if I asked you drive to the grocery store to purchase some groceries but I insist that you follow the same route I have always taken. The moment I insist you follow my driving instructions is the moment I take accountability for results away from you. If there is an accident on the route I prescribed and you are late picking up the groceries, then it’s my fault, not yours.
When a manager defines the desired results and invites another to decide how to achieve those results, the manager makes them an agent—someone who is authorized to act on behalf of another. When a manager prescribes the methods to get certain results, they turn people into a puppet. A puppet is not acting to achieve results, they are simply reacting to the person pulling their strings. An agent, however, is authorized and expected to leverage their unique strengths and experience to get the desired results. An agent can be held accountable for results. A puppet cannot.
Agents, however, do not have free reign. Part of empowering others means specifying their decision-making authority. When people don’t know what their decision-making authority is, they will either
- not take any initiative and bring all problems to their manager to solve, or
- they will make decisions they shouldn’t make.
It is critical that each employee clearly understands their own decision-making authority. Specifying decision-making authority is key to unlocking the discretionary effort and strengths of others without prescribing methods or jeopardizing results.
Assessing Condition 2 In Your Organization
- How often do the people who report to you ask you to solve their problems? (Remember the “I intend to” principle).
- How much control do your employees have over how they achieve the results they are asked to produce?
- Do managers specify (write down) the key results (not tasks) each employee is accountable for and their decision-making authority to achieve those results?
People cannot take accountability for results unless they feel they have the tools and the time to get the job done.
You wouldn’t want your surgeon to begin your emergency surgery and then discover that their scalpel is dull, would you? Of course not. Those precious seconds lost trying to find another scalpel could mean the difference between life and death, not to mention distracting and frustrating the surgical team.
Why, then, do some business leaders cheap out on the tools and equipment they give their employees? Machines that keep breaking down, and old, clunky computers that constantly require repair are costing a fortune in downtime and draining the patience and energy of employees who are eager to do a good job.
When employees don’t have the tools they need to do their job, the only logical conclusion they can come to is that their leaders aren’t nearly as concerned about providing a quality product or service as they are with pinching as many pennies as they can. If their leaders don’t care about quality, why should employees care?
Perhaps the most withheld resource employees need to do a good job is time. The common belief among executives that employees “must learn to do more with less” is becoming dangerous. Yes, organizations and people should always expect to become incrementally more efficient as they gain and apply new experience. But when people are chronically overloaded with work they can’t possibly expect to complete in time, the result is low motivation, reduced commitment to the organization, and ultimately, burnout.
Senior managers can help employees avoid burnout by providing excellent tools and committing to keeping departments slightly overstaffed to provide extra bandwidth for strategic work, employee development, and anticipated temporary vacancies due to turnover.
Managers can also help employees avoid burnout by helping them set realistic timelines to accomplish their goals.
Assessing Condition 3 In Your Organization
- Are employees provided with plenty of the most up-to-date tools and machines?
- Are departments often understaffed?
- When was the last time you asked your staff “What can I do to help you?”
People cannot take accountability for results without a regular flow of information to verify their progress and coordinate their efforts with others.
The purpose of reporting is to regularly check if individuals and the organization are on track to achieve their goals. There are two types of reporting in an organization: reporting in and reporting out.
Reporting In. Research has shown that people who regularly report their progress are 95% more likely to achieve their goals. Managers set their staff up for success by regularly meeting one-on-one with each of them to give them an opportunity to report on the progress of their work, request and provide feedback, and prioritize new assignments. Further research has confirmed that employees who have weekly one-on-one meetings with their managers are more engaged and productive than those who do not.
Reporting Out. Organizations get the right results more often when they distribute critical information so that everyone in the organization can make informed decisions and take initiative with confidence.
Most organizations report financial or operational data from previous time periods. Those are lagging indicators and are not very helpful in guiding employee’s daily decision-making.
Reporting out is about tracking and reporting things that predict future outcomes. For example, website traffic is usually highly correlated to the number of new leads which is correlated to sales. Therefore, website traffic is often a “leading indicator” of sales.
Here is an example of how regularly reporting leading indicators can improve individual accountability and business results:
Alberta Pensions Services Corp. (APS), a client of Avail Leadership, needed to improve its business results, so they looked to their intelligence and analytics team. Their analytics team gathered data to create what they call the APS Dash.
The APS Dash is a network of monitors positioned throughout APS headquarters that displays real-time data on their key performance indicators (leading indicators). Operational managers also have access to the Dash on their desktops. This enables the organization to monitor metrics and shift their priorities to keep APS on track to meet its goals.
Within a year of implementing the APS Dash, APS reduced file handling time by 75%, increased their accuracy, and reduced the staff in their processing department by 25% through reassignment.
Assessing Condition 4 In Your Organization
- Does every employee have frequent, regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with their manager?
- Does every employee know what the leading indicators of success are in your organization?
- Are the leading indicators of organizational success regularly reported to all employees?
People cannot take accountability for results unless they know when they are achieving the right results and when they are not.
If the purpose of reporting is to make sure that individuals and the organization are headed in the right direction, then the purpose of assessment is to confirm if you have arrived at the destination. Assessment is taking the time to determine if the right results have been achieved and then making adjustments to produce better results in the future. Assessment is where lagging indicators, such as financial and operational performance metrics, become useful.
The key to assessment is taking the time to do it. Average people and organizations are in too much of a hurry to stop and think about how to improve the future. Results oriented people and organizations regularly schedule time to pause and reflect after each project or quarter.
With objective data in hand to measure how well they achieved their results, accountable people and teams ask themselves four simple questions:
- What went well?
- What can we do to make sure those things happen more often?
- What didn’t go well?
- What can we do to make sure those things don’t happen again?
I used to work for a construction company that was chronically understaffed and constantly playing catch up. The sales team would write a proposal without sufficient input from the people who would execute the project. Why? Because the people executing were too busy executing. It was only after we won a proposal that the project management team would discover the gaping holes in the project scope. It was then left to the project management team to move heaven and earth to fulfill our obligations.
At senior management meetings the top project manager would rant and rave that we were stupid to put ourselves in this position and that we should do a thorough ‘lessons learned debrief’ at the conclusion of the project to make sure this never happened again. But invariably, just as the project was wrapping up, our top project manager would be put in charge of another project that needed saving, and the lessons learned debrief never happened. Our company was constantly in panic mode and remained a mediocre company at best.
Assessing Condition 5 In Your Organization
- Does each individual and organizational goal include objective standards by which to measure success?
- Do teams regularly conduct lessons learned debriefs at the conclusion of every project or at regular time intervals?
- Are the lessons learned a) communicated to the rest of the organization, and b) incorporated into the organization’s standard operating procedures?
People cannot take accountability for results unless they receive the consequences of their actions.
Without consequences there can be no accountability. For example, having served in a service organization most of my adult life, I can tell you that you cannot hold a volunteer accountable. They may choose to be accountable, and their leaders can encourage them to be accountable by providing the other five conditions of organizational accountability, but you cannot ensure a volunteer will take ownership of results because their leaders cannot enforce any consequences.
Consequences force people to confront reality and feel the impact of their decisions. They give people a reason to care about the outcomes they produce. When people taste the fruit of success and experience the pain of failure, they become owners.
Assessment helps people know what to do to get better results. Consequences help people feel what to do to get better results. To give people the greatest chance for success, good leaders help them do both.
Consequences also provide essential feedback and help inform future decisions. They are tangible evidence of whether the strategy pursued was correct or not. Negative consequences put boundaries around the minimum acceptable behaviour. Positive consequences provide tangible evidence that we are headed in the right direction.
Although consequences provide useful feedback to help people move in the right direction, consequences alone do not provide forward momentum. Frederick Herzberg, the father of modern motivational theory, observed that consequences provide a strong incentive to temporarily move in the direction someone else wants them to go, but it is the person providing the incentive who is motivated, not the person being incentivised. Forward momentum stops the moment incentives are removed.
In other words, consequences are essential for navigation, not motivation. Simply providing positive and negative consequences is no substitute for a leader who motivates others by
- providing a noble cause to strive for,
- creating psychological safety,
- focusing on their strengths,
- and encouraging them to reach their potential.
Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is both the fruit of accountability as well as a means of learning how to produce better results in the future.
Assessing Condition 6 In Your Organization
- Are bonuses, perks, and celebrations offered willy-nilly, or are they contingent upon achieving specific goals?
- Are individual and team achievements sufficiently celebrated?
- Are patterns of poor performance addressed frankly and with the sincere intent to help the individual succeed rather than to lay the groundwork to fire them?
Creating Accountability Means Changing The Culture
Accountability is not as simple as “Some people are accountable and some people are not.” Any time someone gives another an assignment, the person making the assignment has tremendous influence on how well the assignment will be carried out. Managers can simply make the request and hope for the best, or they can actively provide the optimal conditions for employees to succeed.
There is indeed a recipe for organizational accountability. Knowing the six essential conditions of accountability is the easy part. The real work of creating accountability is identifying the organizational practices that leaders can change to reinforce the six conditions, and then executing those changes.
For help creating a culture of accountability in your organization, see the Creating Accountability Workshop Series.