How to create a culture of accountability
In this special column, Murtaza Manji, Director, ActionCOACH, takes a hardened look at the basics of HR management and shares lessons on integrating the right values within your company’s culture.
‘Accountability’ is a big, heavy word. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s used as a measure of proactivity, productivity and manageability. It’s probably safe to say that every company that has a culture of accountability will continue performing and/or improving, even in challenging times. Conversely, stagnation, finger-pointing and under-performance are characteristic of firms where this culture does not exist. The question that business leaders often ask is: How can we create this culture of accountability in our company? There are two major parts to this question, and each one plays a large role in answering it.
It is only fair for a person to be accountable for an outcome if three things are in place: the target, the measurements and the opportunity. If you want to see the level of accountability increase in the business, here are the steps you’ll need to take.
Step One: Besides the CEO of the company, no one person is responsible for the performance of the entire firm. Therefore, targets should be split down to the lowest level of responsibility – but not further. Each person must have his/her individual outcomes made clear, discussed and agreed upon even before they join the team. If the individual and their manager have different expectations for the outcome, it is unlikely that the managers’ goals will be achieved. Action point – ensure every department and every individual is aware of their targets (not just the sales teams). If everyone is pushing in the same direction, chances of success are much better.
Step Two: The metrics for measuring outcomes need to be correct. Metrics – also referred to as KPIs – need to be quantitative and outcome-based. They are the numbers which tell the story of how the business is doing. If these numbers are reported on time and analysed correctly, warning signs can be picked up early enough to make important changes before any damage is caused. Action point – every individual should have KPIs reflecting their targets. These should be analysed frequently, so as to rectify any issues early.
Step Three: KPIs assign responsibility, which is why it is crucial to understand where one teams’ responsibility ends and another teams’ begins. Marketing creates leads, which the sales team converts. Only then can operations service the customer. KPIs around the number of deliveries has to be tied to sales numbers, else the Ops team will fall short on something outside their control. Each person and every team needs to have the opportunity to deliver, else the measurement is both incorrect and unfair. Action point – sit teams down and help them understand how the actions of one affect the other. Design and execution often live in different worlds, and finance is usually on a planet of their own.
If accountability was a case of setting metrics and reporting KPIs, it would be relatively easy. Given that almost every company I’ve worked with (from five-people start-ups to 450-staffed organisations) didn’t have this in place, it is safe to assume that the exercise is a lot harder than it seems. And yet, even the setting of KPIs is not quite the answer.
There is a process around setting KPIs. But the culture element, that is a whole new challenge. Culture is not a process, nor is it contained in employee handbooks. It is a living, dynamic entity, and affects the entire company – both positively and negatively. If there are noticeable ‘cliques’ in social settings – that is a culture. If managers come late and have reserved parking spots outside – that is a culture. If every time someone goes to make a cup of coffee asks the team if they’d like one too – that is a culture.
How does this all come about? Culture is created – it is shaped, refined, instilled and taught. Good culture is intentional, not automatic. Not-so-good culture, on the other hand, has a way of establishing itself in a firm and spreads itself throughout the company. You don’t have to do anything to get a weed-filled backyard, but creating a beautiful garden is constant hard work. The same applies to culture – left to itself, it will often be counter-productive.
There are a few fundamentals to keep in mind for creating a culture of accountability, and each one plays a huge role.
1- Transparency and trust
If I’m accountable to someone, it means I am putting myself up for review by them. If I don’t believe they have my best interest in mind, I would be hesitant to put my success and future in their hands. What is the level of trust within your organisation? Do team members work well together or are there silos? Do individuals or teams have unhealthy competition between them?
The single best way to ensure there is trust across the board is insisting on transparency. Everyone speaks the same language, there are no hidden agendas, and everyone is on the same page. It is easy to feel everything is fine while sitting at the top, so make sure you hear the voices of those down the line. It could provide valuable insights.
2- Two-way communication and proactivity
There is a difference in ‘talking to’ and ‘talking at’. What we would consider a normal conversation is ‘talking to’. When the communication is in the form of orders issued, it’s ‘talking at’. If someone is being told what they need to do, it’s really difficult for them to feel motivated or excited about it, especially during tough times. This is why communication is such an important element for a successful company.
Imagine the difference in enthusiasm you’d feel in these two hypothetical conversations with your superior –
Scenario 1: “These are your targets. I expect this to be achieved by the end of this month, and let me know how you’re doing each week. Any questions?”
Scenario 2: “These are the targets we have for the company. What do you think you need to do to help us achieve this number? And how do you see yourself doing that? What resources will you need? If we were to put a number on it to help us keep track, what should we aim for each week? How could I support you in this? Let’s have a 10 minute debrief each week to see how you’re getting on, shall we?”
Which would you feel more motivated to achieve? And which would make you more willing to be accountable? Note the way you are the other managers are communicating with the team members. Get their buy-in, talk to – not at, and let them be proactive about what they will achieve. It will be remarkable.
3- Have – and be – a role model
There is a saying worth remembering: A fish rots from the head down. If we don’t like what the organisation looks like in the middle, chances are the same issues exist further up the line. Here’s something worth considering: if the entire company behaved like the department heads, would the company be in better or worse shape? (I use department heads as indicative of senior team members but under the level of shareholders/C-suite). Are the team leaders good role models of culture for the rest of the team? Accountability begins with leaders acting like leaders. When you’re busy, it’s easy to let the small things slide, like not responding to emails or showing up to a meeting late. But it’s detrimental to workplace culture if employees see leadership as unaccountable or above-the-law.
Micromanagement is exhausting, ineffective and – unsurprisingly – counter-productive. If accountability only happens when you follow-up a dozen times on what you need, the culture has not been adopted yet. The real value will be seen when team members put their hand up voluntarily on two occasions: to take on a task, and to offer updates. This is, arguably, the most difficult to get right. Autonomy means allowing someone the freedom to do their own thing but for that, you need to trust that they are capable and willing to actually do it. The only way to build this is ‘trial by fire’ – we try it, and either we were right to trust them and everything works, or we were wrong and get burnt. Start with small tasks, and watch closely; sometimes the ones you have the least expectations from will surprise you when given a free rein.
5- Carrots and sticks!
As is normal for any organisation, there may be positive or negative results at the end of the day. What I often see are companies very quick to reward and incentivise, but very slow and unwilling to enforce consequences. Accountability does mean each person proactively says what they have and haven’t achieved, but it’s not a free pass for under-performance. If a team member hasn’t delivered, it’s good for them to admit it, and it’s better for management to support them and address the issue. If the lack of results is consistent, however, it would be unfair to the rest of the team to allow them to get away.
Accountability is not a straightforward business strategy.
Sure, there are numbers and metrics we can utilise, but the core of it comes from fostering the right culture in the entire team. Every successful entrepreneur highlights the importance of having a great team. This is not just a workforce of competent employees – it’s a team of competent, reliable people, who work well together and trust each other. And that is what makes the difference.