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Four Ways You’re Getting Accountability Wrong

Putting limits on negativity, whom you listen to, and how you act is as vital as being held accountable in the first place.

Four Ways You’re Getting Accountability Wrong
[Photo: Flickr user Victor]

Accountability isn’t just a nice-to-have feature of corporate culture. If you can’t tell who’s responsible for what, it’s impossible to understand the reasons for your company’s successes and failures.

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Still, accountability means different things to different people, and if your approach to keeping teams and their leaders accountable is off-base, it can lead to chaos. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about accountability.

1. Forgetting Why Accountability Matters

In order to do anything right, you need to know why you’re doing it. Getting to the “why” and keeping it front and center is accountability’s main objective. It’s a way to recognize and encourage successes as well as identify and rectify failures.

For that reason, it’s important that there’s accountability within the business, but also that the business itself is held accountable to all its stakeholders–employees, customers, shareholders, etc. Once you’ve established who’s accountable for what–and why that person or team as opposed to another–it’s important to act according to those lines of command consistently.

2. Focusing Too Much On Negatives

It’s easy to associate accountability with negativity–pointing out what went wrong and who’s at fault. After all, we tend to fixate on negative outcomes, leading many people to shirk from responsibility when things go awry.

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Some of that has to do with basic human psychology. Negativity bias is a phenomenon that leads to negative events having a larger impact on behaviors and perceptions than positive ones. Good accountability requires fighting against this impulse. Without a concerted effort to look on the bright side, our emotional centers of gravity can shift towards the darker one. And that always spells danger for work cultures.

When it comes to accountability, negativity bias means we’re more likely to draw attention to the things others have done wrong. It also means we’re likelier to focus on our own failings. When we hear feedback, the negative parts tend to stick in our minds longer and outweigh the positives.

Prevent negativity bias from taking over requires a conscious effort to point out the positives in equal (or even greater) measure. Keeping your organization accountable is about looking for opportunities for improvement based on your successes as much as your failures.

3. Letting Too Many People Weigh In

A second delicate balance comes in judging whose views to listen to when it comes to keeping everyone accountable. Companies often struggle to react to shifts in public opinion. While it’s important to remain accountable to customers and shareholders, they won’t always know what’s in the best interests of the company.

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The key is to consider where those people and their views are coming from–which means recognizing that they aren’t based just on self-interest but on a different, and sometimes limited, knowledge base.

Shareholders might understand market fluctuations but not the desires of your customers. The board member who’s well equipped to judge financial performance might not have deep experience in the psychology of leadership, despite holding strong opinions on the subject.

Hold yourself and your company accountable to the best-informed people for the given situation (and they’ll differ according to each one), not those who shout the loudest.

4. Not Responding Purposefully

Taking decisive action when you need to is a vital part of accountability, but there should always be appropriate limits to the scope of your responses. Whether you’re looking to fix a problem or to replicate a success, don’t act until you’ve understood why you got the results you did. Otherwise you could easily end up fixing the wrong problem, or replicating something that didn’t bring success.

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One of the simplest tools in the lean manufacturing toolbox can useful here: the “five whys.” Ask why you got the results you did. Then ask why again, this time about the answer to the first question. Keep asking why until you get to the root cause, and know what really helped or hindered you. Then base your reaction around that fundamental cause.

Accountability isn’t about kneejerk reactions. It’s about knowing how to respond the right way. That takes practice and a sharp sense of proportionality. Setting limits around negativity, whom you listen to, and how you act is as vital as being held accountable in the first place.

About the author

Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.

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