How to Create a Culture of Accountability and Hold People Accountable

Here are a couple of questions from readers on the topic of accountability:

1. “I have recently been part of several discussions on accountability, and I am curious to hear/read your perspective. Some of the salient discussion points have included: for what should leaders be held accountable? Results and behaviors? Once it’s been determined for what they should be held accountable, how do you make accountability happen? What must occur within the organization in order to ensure accountability is a cultural expectation? If you have any insight into this topic, I’d love to read about it.”

2. “What are the top 3 ways to hold people accountable?”

It’s no surprise that accountability is a hot topic these days – it tends to come up when things are not going well. In fact, most people think of accountability as knowing who to hang for poor performance or mistakes.

Here’s Webster’s definition of accountability: “subject to having to report, explain, or justify; being answerable, responsible.”

No wonder it has such a negative connotation. And since most people view it as something to get hit over the head with, we tend to avoid it and instead focus our energy on coming up with creative excuses, blaming, or finger pointing.

I changed my worldview on what accountability was all about when I was doing research for some culture change work for my last company. We knew we needed to “create a culture of accountability”, but there were a lot of different opinions as to what that really meant and how to go about it.

I came across the work of Roger Connors and Tom Smith, from the consulting and training company Partners in Leadership. Their first book, The Oz Principle, defines accountability in a much more positive way, and describes how to develop it yourself and coach others. Their second book, Journey To The Emerald City, builds on that work, and outlines how to create a culture of accountability.

I like that they’ve created a more positive and useful definition of accountability: “A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results – to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.”

Their book and training programs go into detail on each of these four steps to accountability. In a nutshell, it’s all about defining accountability early, before problems occur, being open to feedback and willing to face problems, taking ownership, problem solving, and proactive follow-up.

The opposite of this kind of behavior is blaming, finger pointing, and excuse making. I’ve shown segments of an old 1994 ABC News John Stossell 20/20 segment called “The Blame Game: Are We a Country of Victims”, as a way to introduce and discuss this topic. While it’s easy to see the behavior in others, most people can’t help see a bit of it in themselves as well.

In the Emerald City book, Connors and Smith go on to outline how to create a culture of accountability. Their methodology, which can be used for any culture change, consists of the following steps:

1. Define clear results within your organization

2. Define the actions required to achieve the results

3. Identify the beliefs that produce these actions

4. Create experiences that instill the right beliefs

The book gives a lot more details, checklists, and tools to lead a group through these steps.

In response to the second reader question, “What are the top 3 ways to hold people accountable?”, here’s a “simple” six step method, from the training and consulting company Communico:

S = Set Expectations

I = Invite Commitment

M = Measure Progress

P = Provide Feedback

L = Link to Consequences

E = Evaluate Effectiveness

Finally, I’ll leave you with a story of four people:

This is a story of four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.
It ended that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
– Unknown