Creating a Culture of Accountability: It Might Not Be What You Think

Everyone seems to want more accountability from their team. Too often, though, we think of accountability as something we talk about after people have made a mistake. The language we use is “holding them accountable,” which often means punishing them for things they have done wrong. It’s much more about blame than it is about accountability when we characterize it that way.

Some managers have come to believe that their job is to solve everyone’s problems, not create a fully accountable team.

by Randy Hall

Everyone seems to want more accountability from their team of employees. Too often, though, we think of accountability as something we talk about after people have made a mistake. The language we use is “holding them accountable,” which often means punishing them for things they have done wrong. It’s much more about blame than it is about accountability when we characterize it that way.

When you ask owners and managers what they really want in terms of team behavior, the word accountability tends to take a very different meaning. It’s far more about focusing on what happens before the mistake, to eliminate it proactively, than on what happens after it. They say things like, “I want my teams to make good decisions and think through things ahead of time so we reduce mistakes. I want my team to show up on time and ready to get to work. I want my team to be proactive and solve problems and not just run to me every time something goes wrong.” That gets us a little closer to what accountability in a culture really means.

Accountability can be defined pretty well by words that describe us at our most effective. And it can also be defined by how we lead others. Accountability is an outcome of good leadership processes, even though we often think of it as some inherent trait that we wish others had more of in our practice.

Solution Versus Problem

Do people on your team focus more on the problems than the solutions? The initial impulse to focus on problems is inherent. We evolved to notice things that were different, dangerous, wrong, or unexpected because that’s how we survived the rising flood waters or the crouching tiger in the grass. Specific parts of our brain are geared to notice wrong things, but evolutionary impulses and choices are two very different things.

Accountability on a team means that people choose to consider ways to make things better, not just point out the broken stuff. You can identify this thinking just by listening to the language. “We don’t have a weight or temp in this record again. People keep forgetting to record it,” instead of, “I have some ideas on how we might change our process so that we never miss a weight and temp.” We can learn from that. As leaders, if we want to build more accountability it means asking solution-focused questions like “What do you think we can do about this issue?” or “What ideas do you have that might help us solve this?”

The team may look at us funny if this feels new to them, but over time they will shift behaviors and consider solutions before they bring the problem to us. Some managers have come to believe that their job is to solve everyone’s problems, not create a fully accountable team. These are competing priorities, and we have to choose. It doesn’t mean we abandon people with their problems; it does mean we support them as they contribute to a solution.

Past Versus Future

If you have ever heard statements like, “That’s not the way it works around here” or “We’ve always done it this way and it works just fine,” you are hearing people focus primarily on the past. If you hear statements like “What if we tried this?” or “How could we change things up so that we improve our flow and client experience?” then you are listening to a team focused on the future and what it could be, not the past and what it was. Improvement, growth, success, aspirations, and development are all future oriented, and we cannot achieve any of them by dwelling on the past. If we want a more accountable team in this respect, we need to have future-oriented discussions consistently with individuals and in our staff meetings. If you walk into a practice that is future oriented, everyone you encounter will have goals for themselves and know the goals for the practice. They can describe what the team is working toward and where they want to be in six months, a year, or even two years. They are thinking about the future because we, as a team, discuss the future rather than use meeting time solely to talk about problems in the past.

Good leadership is about causing others to consistently improve and become more effective and successful because of how you made them think, not what you told them to do.

Blame Versus Ownership

In some practices, when something goes wrong, people focus more on whose fault it was than on what they can do to contribute to a better process. If mistakes are the beginning of a witch hunt to find out who screwed up rather than an opportunity to learn from the errors so that we can change our habits, processes, and routines to be more effective, then we will never have an accountable culture; we will have a fearful one. If messing up means blame and punishment, then hiding mistakes or blaming others will become a reasonable approach to staying pain-free. Leaders who create accountable teams use mistakes as learning opportunities, and they understand that focusing on the mistake doesn’t help at all, but focusing on what we do next after a mistake does.

Spend your time on improvements that were identified by errors, not the errors themselves. And ask individuals what contributions they could make to smooth out a process or how they could do things differently to help those who are still learning. Are your associates or others simply complaining about the performance of others, or are they working to support them through teaching and training? One of the best questions you can use in this situation is, “How could you help them improve?”

Reactive Versus Proactive

We can either have a team of people who show up and just wait for things to come at them or have a team that prepares to be at its best and stays ahead of the onslaught of things to do. A proactive culture is one where there is consistent planning, preparation, development, growth, and learning. We aren’t hoping we make it through the day; we are taking well-thought-out steps to achieve success for the day. Leaders can create a team of people who focus on thinking ahead of the challenges, not behind them. They do this by using questions to cause people to think about what’s ahead and how they will prepare to handle it. “What’s on our surgery schedule tomorrow? Are there any challenges you expect? What time should we get started? Is there anyone who needs to learn from what we have scheduled whom we can create an opportunity for? What’s our plan for having a smooth and effective day tomorrow?” If we begin to habitually use questions like this, our team also builds the habit of thinking about the answers before we even ask them, or if we are not on the schedule that day.

Good leadership is about causing others to consistently improve and become more effective and successful because of how you made them think, not what you told them to do. As you work to build a culture that helps your team accomplish more, consider how a framework for accountability like this can be used as a tool to support you as you develop consistent leadership habits that help you and your team achieve a future that is better than what it might have been without your leadership. Leaders can change the future, but having great intentions isn’t enough; they need a process and a set of habits that help them do it.

Randy Hall
Randy Hall, CEO of Aspire, serves as a consultant, coach, and facilitator to help companies create a culture that engages employees, dramatically improves results, and sustains growth. Hall has worked with organizations of all sizes, from Fortune 25 businesses to small and midsize organizations, to help them effectively execute change, develop leaders, engage employees, and reach more of their potential.

 

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/SDI Productions, ©iStock.com//monkeybusinessimages

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