Of all the topics I see bandied about on leadership focused blogs and in books, accountability is one of the least discussed. That is a shame. Even a cursory look around will tell you that accountability, both personal and corporate, is in too short supply. If you need a refresher just think back on recent history. BP, Enron and Madoff come quickly to mind, but they represent just the tip of the iceberg.
It does seem a bit ironic when one realizes that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is one of today’s hot buttons. Regrettably, CSR programs are often first seen when firms go into damage control mode. How much better it is when CSR programs and performance (with or without a “program”) are motivated by core values and an honest desire to do the right thing for the right reasons.
But before I take on the world I had best make sure my own house is in order. My hunch is that if more people did that then the temptations to take other shortcuts would not be as tempting. No empirical evidence, just a hunch. Easily said, but where do we start? A few thoughts …
I need to ask myself …
- What am I accountable for, and to whom am I accountable?
- What are my core values and precepts?
- Am I really living up to them?
- If not, why am I tolerating my behavior and what is it costing me?
- What must I do to change, to act in the way I believe correct?
Are We Who We Say We Are, or What We Do?
The skeptics and pragmatists among us would say that we are what we do, not necessarily what we say we believe. At the bottom line I would agree with that. But I do believe that we can change what we do when we find it out of alignment with what we believe. Recognizing the dichotomy between values and misaligned actions and the opportunity to resolve them are measures of grace. Being honest with ourselves, holding ourselves accountable, then acting in ways that repair our relationship with our values are measures of courage and integrity.
The same can be said of accountability in the corporate domain. When actions do not align with values it is an accountability issue. Where accountability is a core value and practice people know what is expected and understand that consequences exist. Likewise, extending grace to each other in the workplace allows opportunity for correction, learning and development. We call this the maturation cycle and we’ve all benefitted from it. Fire every staff member who makes a mistake, even an egregious one, and you will soon have a very small staff. That is not to say there is never a time when dismissal is appropriate, only that good people make mistakes. Sometimes, reinvesting in them is the right thing to do.
Accountability and Transparency Go Hand-In-Hand
When organizations value accountability they provide mechanisms for objective evaluation, candid and respectful dialogue, and transparent honesty. These characteristics encourage integrity-based behavior and allow a certain sense of vulnerability without feeling threatened; all conducive to aligning values and performance, all conducive to accountability.
Many associate “accountability” negatively. They view it in win-lose and conflict-based contexts. The reality is that when implemented and managed correctly, accountability policies and practices have developing and affirming individuals and establishing a transparent environment in which to operate confidently as key goals.
Accountability begins with clear standards and expectations. These foundational characteristics provide reference points for objective evaluation, without which accountability discussions can seem arbitrary and judgmental. To use a football analogy, everyone appreciates knowing what the rules are before the penalty flag is thrown. It is no different in our professional lives. Setting clear standards and articulating them well establishes the framework within which we function.
Accountability Begins with Leadership
When leaders demonstrate personal accountability they set the example for others to follow and establish the organizational norm. Taking responsibility for your own mistakes frees others to take responsibility for theirs, allowing them to approach challenges as problem solving and learning opportunities.
Strong leaders act quickly when mistakes occur, focusing on correction and teaching, even when it is they who made the mistake. Viewing these situations as opportunities for candid analysis and transparent disclosure benefits the leader and the organization by supporting the notion that what matters most is understanding and correcting to support fundamental values and goals. When your organization sees you doing that they will feel secure in following suit.
The questions I started this post with are just as good for the organization as they are for the individual. If you have established an environment of trust and transparent objectivity then the answers will be unambiguous, and possibly illuminating.