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Creating a High Accountability Culture

Creating a High Accountability Culture

Recently I was asked why it seems so hard for some managers to hold their employees fully accountable. To me, there are three main reasons.

They Don’t Know How

Although they’d like to have a high accountability culture, they don’t understand the process for achieving one effectively and efficiently. They assign tasks in a somewhat haphazard way and hope the worker will “figure it out” and deliver an adequate and, hopefully, superior performance. Well, hope is not a strategy! Managers who want to create more accountability should follow this five-step process:

1. Establish 100 Percent Clarity. Remember this phrase: “Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity.” In order to hold someone accountable, you must give them very specific, clear, measurable goals and outcomes. The key is to make the goals you assign, as much as possible, binary. That means it’s either a one or zero; it is right or it is wrong; they achieved the goal or they did not achieve the goal—no guessing. The reason this is so critical is that it removes emotion from the equation. It is not me versus the employee; it is me and the employee together against the very specific, measurable, unambiguous goals and targets that have been set.

2. Gain Agreement. If you want to hold someone 100 percent accountable, then you must gain their full, 100 percent agreement that they clearly understand exactly what is expected of them. They must also agree that they believe it is reasonable and that they can attain it, as well as agree to deliver the outcome requested on the date required.

3. Track and Post. Here is another phrase you should memorize: “Visibility Drives Accountability.” In order to hold your people fully accountable, you must give them the information they need to understand exactly how they are doing against their goals. So the idea here is to figure out a handful of Key Result Areas that you will track very carefully and post everywhere. You have to make these metrics easy to understand and highly visible so that everyone in the organization knows precisely how they are doing at all times against their agreed-upon goals.

4. Coach and Mentor.  For anyone who is struggling with achieving their agreed-upon goals, it is essential that you step in as early as possible to help them, coach them and mentor them back on track. In some cases they will need additional training; other times they may need additional resources, time, equipment, or motivation—and it is the manager’s job to determine what sort of assistance they need and provide it so that they can be successful in achieving the desired outcome.

5. Celebrate/Mitigate. If someone does a fantastic job in delivering the required results, you should praise them lavishly—celebrate their success, make a positive book example of them, give them lots and lots of positive reinforcement. On the other hand, if you have people on your team with who you have: set exceedingly clear expectations, gained full agreement, tracked and posted their progress open (or lack thereof) and coached and mentored them in every way you can, and they still do not meet the expectations, then you must deal decisively with mediocrity. This brings me to the second reason that many managers do not hold their people fully accountable.


They Don’t Want To Be The Bad Guy

Many managers are reluctant to hold their people accountable, not because they don’t think it’s a good idea, but because they simply don’t want to be seen as a tough, mean or unreasonable boss. A recent Harvard study showed that many managers, who are hoping to get promoted, refrain from holding their people 100 percent accountable because they want to get good performance feedback and stay in line for promotion, rather than being disciplined with their folks and getting negative reviews that might inhibit their climbing the organizational ladder. Let’s just face it, it’s not fun to have to tell someone they’re not doing a good job, that’s they’re not meeting expectations and might lose their job—that is never a happy conversation.


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Because It Is Hard To Do

Taking the time to create 100 percent clarity, with specific metrics around all your employees’ key goals takes a lot of time and effort. Creating a system to track and post all of that information is also challenging (although there is a number of excellent software programs that make it much easier now.) Taking precious time to stop and mentor/coach struggling employees is also time-consuming and challenging. And as I just mentioned, having to tell people that they are not meeting goals and that their performance is unacceptable is extremely difficult for many managers. So rather than go through the time, effort, challenge and discomfort of creating a high account ability culture, unfortunately many managers decide not to hold themselves accountable—for accountability!


So those are what I believe are the three most prevalent reasons why managers fail to hold people accountable. I understand that creating a high accountability culture is difficult, time-consuming and challenging—but I also understand that lack of accountability is probably the single most expensive business issue I have ever encountered. It is staggering to see the amount of money that businesses leave on the table or lose because of a low accountability culture. For some businesses it’s thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars—for others, it’s millions or billions! If I were to identify one single thing that would likely have the largest dramatic positive impact in most of the client organizations I work with, it would be increasing the level of engagement and accountability across the entire organization. For businesses that can achieve this, massive amounts of data indicate they will likely see a huge spike in profitability and a significant increase in market share— two things that most business leaders/managers want to achieve very, very badly.


John Spence is the author of “Awesomely Simple – Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas into Action,” and has twice been recognized as one of the top 100 business thought leaders in America and one of the country’s leading small business influencers. John has also read more than 100 business books a year since 1989.

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