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One of the more elusive elements of company culture is accountability. Accountability, or lack of it, is the elephant in the room at many companies. Everyone wants it, everyone needs it and most can easily identify when there is a lack of it.

For a number of people, accountability is a natural behavior. But for an organization, it’s a learned behavior. And typical of many companies, people resist the efforts of owners and managers to put policies and procedures in place to create accountability as an expectation.

When companies are in the formative stages, owners focus on getting work and building teams. They don’t have time to work on the business to the degree necessary to build the culture for the future. Their culture then evolves based on behaviors of the team members. If an owner naturally gravitates toward having high expectations for performance, accountability becomes part of the culture and employees come to accept, and aspire to, goals and expectations.

As most companies grow, when organizational performance is inconsistent, it is not through lack of effort or systems, but rather a result of weak alignment and little accountability.

So, how can we foster a culture of accountability?

  1. It starts at the top. Owners and managers must make accountability an actionable core value. They must live the culture, talk about what it means in the workplace and hold everyone responsible to it as an organizational goal.
  2. Business is a team sport. Roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined as realistic, measurable metrics for everyone on the team. The less ambiguity, the better. Accountability needs to have both positive and negative consequences, which need to be consistently applied. Empower employees to have ownership of their work and be accountable to each other and to goals.
  3. Behavior and trust. In low-trust workplaces, there’s a lot of finger-pointing. In high trust workplaces, people focus on solutions. Creating a supportive environment for trust will help shape positive behaviors. An example of this is a company wanting to have a safe working environment.

    Some companies think they can build a safe culture by assigning a safety officer. But a safety-first work culture is only authentic when everyone accepts responsibility and accountability for maintaining safe practices. Other behaviors that cause a culture to suffer from credibility include companies that claim to be responsive, yet have no sense of urgency, or promote a “do whatever it takes” attitude, yet fail to close loops.

  4. Avoid the snowball effect. This requires the whole team to understand that by not being accountable, the impact is exponential. Like dominoes, one delay sets off a chain of delays further downstream. Management must not tolerate bad behaviors, missed deadlines, lack of punctuality, unsafe practices or unfinished work. Instead, work to help employees understand accountability’s upside for profitability and growth.
Accountability Killers
  1. Sacred cows. Most companies have employees who are not held to the same standards as everyone else. Leaders need to exercise caution when thinking of these employees as indispensable. Being overly tolerant of people and behaviors that can threaten the integrity of your culture damages a leader’s credibility and undermines team morale.
  2. Making excuses. No, you aren’t covering for yourself. Instead, you’re covering for people who don’t achieve desired results. Sometimes these employees have a particular expertise so some of their flaws are accepted because they are needed. When exceptions are made, people feel exceptional and accountability is compromised.
  3. Letting them slide. You aren’t dealing with employees who don’t grow professionally, who don’t keep pace with new technologies and approaches or seem to resist learning. They might have learned to work the system but allowing these individuals to pass on continuous improvement holds the whole team back.

Terminating people and being tough can be challenging. No one likes to be the bad guy. But if we make exceptions for the accountability killers – if we are fair to one – we are unfair to everyone else.

Bruce Wilson is principal of green industry consulting firm Bruce Wilson & Company.