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3 Steps to accountability: build a high performacne culture

Erik Gabrielson

07 March 2017

 The term accountability is used alot in our culture. We often hear the refrain "we need to hold someone accountable!". The term is used synonomously with responsibility. Even Wikipedia defines accountability as "blameworthiness". In our experience, however, high performing teams and high performing people distinguish between accountability and responsbility. 

Accountability, one of the 6 principles of high performance, is a personal choice you make to influence some aspect of the world. It is more personal and involves a deeper level of commitment than responsbility. 

In a High Performing, Accountable culture, leadership shifts from one where the leader orchestrates the fulfillment of outcomes to one where the leader creates an environment that unleashes the full potential of individuals and raise everyone’s performance together. 

What gets in the way of creating an accountable culture?

Leaders often unwittingly dampen the potential of their employees by creating a dynamic that limits the emergence of accountability:

  • The traditional responsibility-oriented approach tends to feel safer, largely because it resides within the leader’s comfort zone – he or she, typically with more experience than others on the team, is predisposed to the set of possibilities for the organization.  The key leadership role then becomes setting goals, and ensuring that team members are clear on their roles, capable of fulfilling on their tasks, and held to high standards for execution.
  • The accountability-focused approach requires that leaders move outside their comfort zone, investing time in engaging the broader team authentically, supporting new learning and allowing relevant opportunities to emerge.  They focus more on creating the processes that enable their people to thrive rather than controlling those processes themselves.

When introducing strategic or transformational change, we often see leaders think through the rational components, which our brains understand, but fail to address the components that impact our willingness and ability to take action – our physical and emotional selves.  We often don’t engage or employees in a way that enable them to overcome their own fears, contribute to the solution, and feel personally connected to the overall outcomes. 

How do you make the shift to a culture of accountability?

In our experience, tools such as functional roles & responsibilities and job descriptions are important – and best used as starting points.  They address the intellect by providing important structure for individuals and teams to gain clarity and understand expectations.  By themselves, however, these tools don’t address the issues that are triggered in periods of change – Why are we changing?  What does this mean for me?  Will I be competent on the other side of change?

Absent these needs being addressed, employees are more likely to retract into their own comfort zone than lean into new challenges.  Thus, employees tend to want their jobs to be clearly defined, when what is needed is to provide a platform for employees to address the unknowns.

Accountability shows up when employees choose to embrace where the organization is going and take action to help get there, regardless of role. 

Three key steps need to happen to set the culture for Accountability to flourish:


1. Get aligned around the larger goal and clear why it's important

We find that if you get the team aligned around the overall goal – and get clear on why it is important to the organization and to them – that the team members will address the details.  More importantly, they are able to adapt and refine the details quickly as market factors change.  They are positioned to be accountable for creating the desired outcomes versus responsible for specific inputs that often feel disconnected from the desired outcomes.  This mood of ambition then permeates the organization.

2. Engage team members in the process 

Create engagement with your employees where team members participate in setting and committing to performance standards versus complying with those set for them.

3. Accountability is a Choice

Allow people to choose to be accountable for the success of the whole, to take action and learn.  Hold people responsible for their designated tasks, don’t “hold people accountable” as this reduces engagement and commitment, whereas creating an environment where accountable employees thrive is the key to breakthroughs and sustained high performance.

In our experience, if leaders provide the right environment with the right tools, people will choose in – and learning, development, and higher performance rush in.

Do you have a high performing, accountable team? 

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