How to create a culture of accountability

Garth Roberts,

Somewhere around 500 B.C., a Greek poet named Aeschylus noted that “Everyone’s quick to blame the alien.” Nothing’s changed. We’re still quick to point the finger of blame at a colleague, customer or competitor. Heaven forbid that we look in the mirror and see the real cause of our discomfort. 

Countless business books on leadership extol the virtue of being accountable, yet every day in the workplace managers fail to lead on this key issue. As a consultant, I visit a variety of business types and I am amazed at the lack of accountability at all levels of an organization. Recently a manager told me: “In our organization, no one wants to hold others accountable for their actions.” In fact, this individual went on to say the managers tend to take the blame for errors or inefficiencies rather than confront employees. Such excuses as “she’s really quite new to the job,” or “I probably wasn’t clear in my directions,” won’t instill a sense of responsibility in any employee. These comments smack of a manager too timid to face a possible conflict and hold staff accountable. Actually, these managers don’t even come close to holding themselves accountable for the job they were hired to do. defines accountability as “the state of being accountable, liable or answerable.” What a novel thought! If you’ve followed the recession news over the past couple of years you get the sense that being accountable is unnecessary. Lose millions and you’ll get a bailout. Even though you’re supposed to be accountable for your actions, your contract will still guarantee you a million-dollar handshake as you are being ushered out the door.

In her book Fearless Leadership, Loretta Malandro, PhD., says that, for a business to grow and change, there must be a culture of 100 percent accountability. Malandro defines this as “being personally accountable for business results and your impact on people, even when others accept zero accountability.” She also notes that everyone in an organization must accept and share that commitment, no matter at what level they sit.

Too many supervisors and managers abdicate their leadership because they assume they can’t have any impact on business results. While they may believe they can impact immediate surroundings, when the going gets tough, they look upward and blame the inefficiencies of higher management for the problems. As a former front-line leader, I know every supervisor or manager has more power than they imagine. To become a fearless leader, one must exercise that power.

How does accountability fit with leadership power? It all starts with your plan. Do you actually have one? Too many managers don’t have a personal plan that involves their work and non-work lives. They have vague directions. Reality check: most of us plan our vacations better than we plan our lives.

How do you become more accountable?

1) Start with a plan and ensure that it is aligned with your company’s. If you don’t know the company’s plan, ask. Your boss probably assumes you know what it is because it’s talked about a lot at manager’s meetings. Most of us forget that just talking about something doesn’t mean it is communicated well. Osmosis doesn’t work in any company environment when it comes to effective communication.

2) Put your plans into action in a logical, coordinated fashion. This includes sharing your plan through memos, e-mails, letters, reports and, most effective of all, face-to-face contact. Nothing beats talking with your people. To ensure understanding, have a two-way conversation and allow others to ask questions and challenge your plan. They may be able to enhance the plan, and by doing that, take ownership along with you.

3) Follow-up. For those of you who believe you are  good at follow-up, look around your office, home and garage and see how many unfinished projects stare back at you. If nothing stares back, you can say you’re good at follow-up. Experience tells me that few people in business or life have great track records on seeing a project through. As you become better in crossing the final “T” on a project, your colleagues and staff will see you can be counted on. You are finally being accountable.

Letter to the Editor: Your comments are welcome.

Keywords: Accountability, pointing the finger of blame, failing to lead, confronting employees, holding yourself accountable, leadership

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