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Understanding Accountability Culture and the Building Blocks for Lasting Transformative Change

Building an accountability culture that has positive transformative power for the organization and its people requires more than quick fixes and lip service. Understand what accountability should mean in the workplace and learn where you can start so that efforts for building accountability culture at your organization can take flight.
Jessika Zetterholm
Jessika Zetterholm
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AT A GLANCE

  • Establishing a clear, shared understanding of accountability is essential for leaders and employees to foster a culture that benefits both people and the bottom line.
  • Transforming the negative perception of accountability into a positive concept is crucial to eliminate ambiguity and create a trusting, effective workplace environment.
  • Clarity is the cornerstone of building a culture of accountability, leading to improved organizational performance and employee empowerment.

“Accountability” has become trendy again in the business world.

Its resurgence in leadership lingo comes as we seek more adaptability and better performance in the midst of dynamic change. But why this, and why now?

The concept itself isn’t new – it has been around for hundreds of years – and those organizations in the modern working world that have successfully established and sustained an accountability culture have found great benefit to both their people and bottom line. When even one of the most successful private equities we have worked with insists on accountability leadership as key to the success of its portfolio companies, the increased calls for accountability culture begs the question: Why isn’t this already “how we do things” in every organization?

In this article, we aim to offer a perspective of what is behind the answer to this question and what you can do so that accountability culture can take flight in your organization.

Accountability in the workplace

Accountability

the quality or state of being accountable
especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions

From Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability

The word Accountability was first used in 1750, with sources indicating its early use was as an obligation to explain and justify financial transactions. As trade and commerce grew, and later legal and political systems, the concept of accountability expanded beyond financials to encompass broader obligations and answerability for one’s actions.

Since then, it has been linked to organizational performance, ethics, and governance. In the organizational context, accountability was researched extensively and advocated by pioneers and experts in organizational psychology.

Look at books by Elliott Jaques, Dr. Harry Levinson, and Dr. Gerry Kraines, and you’ll see their research and assertion that accountability is the foundational principle to building high-performing organizations where employees are enabled to reach their full potential, leverage the potential of others, and nurture a sense of trust and fairness. Accountability in the workplace is, at its core, about clarity of:

  • goals
  • strategies
  • roles
  • the work
  • relationships between roles

Even so, many have struggled to build and sustain accountability within their organization.

Our evolving use of accountability and its impacts

If you have ever cringed at the sound of accountability, you are not alone. This word has been perceived negatively for some time.

Our use and understanding of language have become increasingly casual, and we’re left with the perceptions we have built over time. As linguist and cognitive psychologist Max Louwerse, Ph.D. asserts in his writings, our ability to recall and leverage words is not only a combination of what we learned since childhood, our environment and computation, and our instincts and memories that link words to perceptual information but also the patterns in the sequence of sounds and words themselves.

So when we routinely hear “someone must be held accountable!” and ask people to “take accountability” when mistakes are made within and outside of work, it’s only natural we associate accountability with something negative.

The result? We still cringe at the sound of it at work and replace it with nice words like “Ownership” and “Responsibility.” As long as we continue to reinforce these negative perceptions and replace accountability with “nicer” words that mean something entirely different, we will continue creating unnecessary ambiguity that leads to the problems we often experience at work.

If you remember nothing else, remember this from our dear friend, expert, and author, Dr. Gerry Kraines: “Absent clear accountabilities, people will act in their own self-interest.”

Common challenges resulting from unclear accountabilities:

  • Conflicting priorities
  • Insufficient information to make decisions
  • Frequent escalations
  • Lack of necessary authority to deliver
  • Confusion over who is running with what
  • Office politics and self-serving behaviors

The list goes on.

In other words, the opposite of what you need to induce trust and an environment where people can do their best work.

If this feels familiar, you’re not alone. These challenges are so commonplace, they have fueled an industry of surveys and literature that offer quick fixes and complex solutions alike. Even our clients, on average, report spending 30-60% of their time working the system to compensate for a lack of clarity.

A brief note on the distinction between responsibility and accountability

Responsibility is the comfort food of workplace language. It is a wonderful trait to have in the people we work with. The problem with using it interchangeably with accountability is that leaders have very little control over changing a person’s sense of responsibility.

Responsibility is what people develop over a lifetime. It is based on the role models, expectations, work ethic, morals, and habits they grew up with. Leaders cannot count on responsibility alone for results. However, leaders can count on holding employees accountable for the timing and quality of the work outputs of their role – whether the employee feels responsible for it or not. This is a big difference.

Stack the building blocks of an accountability culture in your organization

There is no quick fix for those who want results that will last. However, take a cue from some modern companies that have successfully promoted and fostered accountability culture. Google’s efforts to promote accountability and autonomy in decision-making have fostered innovation and creativity. Salesforce’s efforts to encourage transparency and accountability have induced a sense of trust amongst employees and customers.

Leaders who are serious about creating and fostering accountability culture can begin stacking the building blocks.

Start with two questions:

  1. Are we all (leaders and direct reports) crystal clear on what accountability means at work? This needs to be more than lip service!
  2. Are we (leaders) ready to fully commit and do what it takes to create the conditions that make it real? This often means changing systems, structures, processes, behaviors, and more – but when done well, it can have amazing benefits for both people and the bottom line.

If the answer is no to one or both of these questions, then begin conversations to determine what is unclear and clarify it:

  • What is the work of the role?
  • How does this work fit into the larger strategy?
  • What does success look like?
  • What is the role accountable for?
  • What other roles impact this work? What accountabilities do those roles have in relationship to this work? (for example: providing inputs, giving advice, auditing outputs)
  • What elbow room (boundaries, authorities) does this role have to deliver and perhaps do something bigger, better, faster, cheaper?

This clarity doesn’t emerge organically, and sustaining it ultimately requires a structure designed to deliver the organization’s strategy, enabling processes and technology, and matching the people to the roles that will set them up for success. But until those stars align, clarity will enable you to begin stacking the building blocks of trust that can unleash a culture of accountability that drives potential – and that is a culture worth aspiring to.


References

  • Kraines, G. (2021). Management Productivity Multipliers. Newburyport: Career Press.
  • Jaques, E. (1998). Requisite Organization. Arlington: Cason Hall & Co.
  • Levinson, H. (2006). USA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
  • Louwerse, M. (2021). Keeping Those Words in Mind: How Language Creates Meaning. Prometheus Books.

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By Jessika Zetterholm
Vice President
Jessika Zetterholm joined Pariveda Solutions in 2006 and began her career in technology, leading clients in various industries with solution delivery, strategy, and change. Ms. Zetterholm’s experiences and roles ultimately led to her passion in Organizational Science, where she brings science-based and time-tested principles to help clients get out of their own ways so that they can deliver value effectively and reach their potential.

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