Leaders Build an Accountable Culture

15 years ago I was leading a strategic planning session and we were struggling with quality issues in the firm at the time. There was lots of conversation about root causes and ultimately the predominant theme was accountability.  However, it didn’t sit right with me. Terms like “we need to hold them accountable” didn’t have the right feel – it was clear to me that we were looking to figure out who to blame.

The phrase “we need to hold them accountable” often carries a punitive connotation, suggesting a search for culprits rather than solutions. This perspective can be detrimental to a team’s morale and effectiveness. Accountability, in its essence, should not be a tool wielded like a hammer but rather a culture fostered by leaders where everyone feels a collective responsibility.

The fact that 15 years later I am still wrestling with the memory of that meeting I guess says something about the importance of this leader challenge. Drawing from Abraham Maslow’s teachings, I believe that accountability aligns with the innate human drive to excel and contribute positively. Most people don’t inherently seek to underperform or disappoint others. Instead, there’s a natural inclination towards improvement and success.

With that in mind, a leader does have work to do to create a culture of accountability.  In that planning session it should have been our goal to diagnose the current condition, identify the work skills and processes that need to change, develop those into statements of work, assign a champion to each piece of work, high-five one another when we figured it out and then git ‘er done.  The leader has work to do in each of those six cliche statements.

  1. Diagnosing the Current Condition: Require facts, not fears be presented as evidence. Understanding the real issues is crucial for effective problem-solving.
  2. Identifying Improvement Areas: At LeaderWork, we emphasize that problems always stem from one of four root causes: Lack of knowledge – I didn’t know. Lack of skills – I didn’t know how. Inadequate supporting environment; information, tools, materials, etc. Lack of motivation – I chose not to.  Notably, motivation is often the least significant factor in performance issues.
  3. Developing Work Plans: Transform ideas into actionable goals. Clear, SMART goals ensure that everyone understands when objectives are achieved.
  4. Assigning a Champion: Each goal requires one and only one dedicated individual responsible for its progress, supported by the team.
  5. High-five: There should be an acknowledge celebration (not huge) when both the problem and solution are clear and the team is ready to make things better.
  6. Git er done: the last responsibility of the leader is to create the structure, rhythm, communication, and tracking processes to ensure the work gets across the finish line.  It’s not micromanagement nor is it a lack of trust for the leader to remain engaged in the coordination of action. To be clear, accountability is not to the leader, it a promise from one team member to each of the others.  Collectively they have developed the plans and inevitably plans are part of a system.  Each part of the system relies on the others to work effectively or efficiently.  The leader watches the whole, keep connections strong, props up where needed, refocuses as required. The leader also is prepared to adjust plans as needed. Challenges and unforeseen circumstances are inevitable, and a flexible approach can keep the team on track. It’s the conductor listening to each instrument in the symphony. It is the work of the leader to ensure the parts are focused, aligned, prioritized and acted on.

To me, the 6th point in the list above is the leader’s work of creating a culture of accountability and when present, it allows people’s natural desire to win to have its best chance. Nowhere in this model is there room for blame or shame. Blame creates fear and fear is the killer of creativity and innovation.

About the Author

Paul Doyle
Paul Doyle is the founder of LeaderWork. He brings more than 35 years of diverse business experience, including 15 years as a CEO, leading manufacturing companies. Paul has been active in North America with companies ranging from $20 million to $450 million in revenue.