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Accountability – let’s start doing it like we actually mean it (Part Two)

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Ed Hurst – Senior Consultant

In Part One of this blog, I discussed the fact that organizations are responding to the need to improve performance (and, for some, the need to address toxic PR incidents) by investing millions of dollars in initiatives designed to promote a ‘culture of accountability’.  But many are failing to make progress. These apparently-logical initiatives more or less amount to carrying on as normal while imposing ‘solutions’ on people top-down.  That’s not what accountability looks or feels like…

So, your brand is in trouble because your company keeps making serious mistakes and finding itself caught in PR nightmares.  This, in turn, is leading to increased legal/regulatory scrutiny of alleged unethical behavior.  Customers are viewing you with serious doubts.  You care a lot about being a principled, customer-oriented company, and shareholders are concerned, so you have taken these setbacks seriously.

When implementing remedial action, you didn’t just rely on existing solutions or delegate it as usual.  You approached building a culture of accountability with the same degree of senior management focus and robust process as your other most critical initiatives.  When something has such a huge impact on the business, you deal with it decisively from the top – to lock the problem down and fix it so you can move on.  But six… twelve… eighteen months later, no material change in culture is evident and new problems keep emerging.  Something has to be done!

With almost any other problem threatening your business, decisive top-down action is the right thing to do.  The trouble is that it kills accountability – because people don’t start acting responsibly and accountably just because you roll out a program.  In fact, the more you attempt to mandate or ‘force’ people to be accountable, the less room you leave for them to truly hold themselves accountable for doing the right things.  People in highly accountable cultures do the right thing even when no one is watching (not because they are being watched).  When building a culture of accountability, the direct route from problem to solution doesn’t work.  This journey has to go via ‘people feeling like the problem is theirs’.

So direct top-down action isn’t the answer.  But we also can’t throw up our hands and do nothing about accountability – because getting this wrong is costing us heavily.  So, what’s the answer…?

Successful organizations have found that they can foster accountability if they tackle it indirectly.  The key is not to try and roll it out – but to create an environment where it will happen, apparently by itself, but actually as a result of strategically putting the right ingredients in place.

As I said in Part One of this blog, most organizations over-index on logic when looking for solutions – appealing to people’s heads by implementing rational initiatives.  But effective strategies need a healthy mixture of heads (logic), hearts (engaging with how people feel) and hands (practical solutions that achieve traction), because that’s how people actually form new mindsets, behaviors and culture.

In Part Three of this blog, I will focus on some of the key solutions that form the hands part of the equation.  But first, let’s talk about hearts.  Because that’s where real change starts – and what we most often misunderstand.

How do you engage people’s hearts so that they feel personally driven to be accountable for the actions they take at work?  How do you build meaning and passion into the workplace so that people feel personally invested?  The starting point is to articulate a vision that is clear and compelling – something worth working hard for individually and togetherThis is so important because you can’t ask people to take accountability for what they do in pursuit of company goals if they don’t understand and sincerely believe in them.  This isn’t enough on its own, of course, but without a shared vision, there’s simply no hope of a culture of accountability being formed.

And here, we encounter a really tricky problem.

When I say, “articulating a vision”, I don’t mean wordsmithing the sort of utopian or blandly positive aspiration that most companies create when describing what they stand for.  I mean something that truly encapsulates what your organization exists to achieve, how you do business, why it’s important and how people will benefit.  Something that demonstrates how you will take brave and honest decisions – even in the tough moments – in ways that everyone can see and relate to.

When articulating our vision and values, most of us write positive-sounding manifestos that end up sounding so unrelated to real events as to render them instantly irrelevant.  Let’s be frank, even when people want to believe in them, many of us simply dismiss them as out of touch.  There is a gulf between what we say we value and what we actually do in running our businesses day-to-day.

Why is that?

Well, one reason is that most companies talk about their vision/values without referring to the fact that we are seeking to make money, and why that’s a valuable thing to do.  We know people are instinctively skeptical of the profit motive, so we simply avoid mentioning it.  But when we talk as though we do business simply out of the goodness of our hearts, nobody takes anything we say seriously.  Some people might even believe that, because you are hiding your focus on profits, you secretly will be ok with them doing questionable things that make money.  The whole vision/values statement is dismissed as insincere – including the very things we want people to be accountable for – and our credibility as leaders suffers as a result.

A much more positive way of handling this issue is demonstrating that business success is a win‑win.  When we make money, our employees are enabled to have jobs and our shareholders keep investing in us.  Above all, it’s probably an indicator that we’re doing a good job.  As long as we’re operating in a competitive market place, making money suggests that customers are happy enough to choose to pay for our products and services.  And successful companies tend to be the ones that treat their people well.  So profits are both a positive outcome and a measure of some pretty noble aspirations.  We need to get better at talking about this – not just unashamedly but with genuine passion.

But it’s so much more than that.  If people are going to choose to act with accountability, our vision and values need to be compelling to every individual.  They must capture how what we are doing is important on a personal level.  If there’s one thing that every human being needs, it’s a sense of meaning and purpose.  Yet most people in organizations spend so much of their lives with little sense of passion for what they are doing.  Have you ever chosen to do something that involved hard work – even some pretty unpleasant tasks – but done it gladly because you’re helping to achieve something you believe in?  If you have that feeling, it makes any challenge seem worthwhile and it makes us all take responsibility for doing things well.  What could be better for a culture of accountability than that feeling, multiplied by thousands of employees?

But when we talk about our vision and values, we can’t help producing nifty one‑liners to put on the wall, our website and press releases – then thinking that the task is complete, leaving us free to carry on as normal.  In some ways, this makes sense because crisp definitions are a great way of summarizing and broadcasting the message.  But if that’s all we do, it’s nothing more than sloganizing.  And, as leaders, doing better than that should be our ‘day job’.

The trouble is that words alone – especially when transmitted by companies/bosses – are a very poor means of communicating something.  What we need is to recognize that, when it comes to driving accountability, our job as leaders is to support our vision and values by continuously creating highly effective dialogue that builds shared meaning and purpose.  This is not something that can be delegated to HR or our Marketing/Communications teams (though they have a key role in it).  It cannot be done as a one-off task or talked about only when problems arise.  Top leaders need to be centrally involved at all times – and seen to be so by everyone.

A true dialogue feels like everyone is listening as well as speaking; that leaders are available, accessible, honest and approach the conversation as authentic human beings doing something truly meaningful, not as machines churning out corporate messages.  That people’s contributions actually have the potential to influence decisions.  That it’s safe to say anything even if it’s challenging the status quo.  We must avoid the bland, the ‘right thing to say’ – our top priority should be to share in our sense of purpose in a way that makes people truly want to contribute in any way they can.

This continuous listening is essentially story-telling that involves going beyond one-liners and slogans and into the ‘juice’ of the vision and values.  Talking about the impact we create and making it real for everyone.  As leaders, it requires us to be close to our people and to have a knack of relating to others.  It’s easy, in senior positions, to understand and believe in what we are trying to do and to forget how remote that can feel to everyone else – employees and customers alike.

So we need to prioritize and have energy for connecting with our people and creating shared meaning.  And it requires us to live up to what we say.

This is all very different from rolling out systems and initiatives to advance accountability, expecting people to just start doing it – then carrying on as normal, as though the problem is fixed and our work is somehow separate from why we may (or may not) feel accountable.  It’s about engaging with our people in a new way about the very heart of our business.

In the next installment of this blog, I’ll share more of the approaches that we’ve found to advance accountability, focusing on practical solutions that build on our vision to achieve traction – including shaping how people operate through creating consistent consequences and crafting a talent strategy that promotes a culture of accountability.

 

The Lime Group is a team of expert problem-solvers working at the intersection of strategy, leadership and culture.  With offices in Sydney, New York, and London, we bring a fresh approach and unmatched energy to solving our clients’ most difficult organizational problems.  We design, build and deliver culture shift programs; executive team effectiveness journeys; and transformational communications approaches. Visit us at  www.thelimegroup.com.