How to create a culture of accountability

Any small business can post its core values on the wall and remind employees about them daily. But if employees are never held accountable for these behaviors, they’ll just repeat transgressions over and over.

“Accountability must be woven into the fabric of your organization. It has to become a part of every aspect of your business,” says Brian Bedford, co-author of the new book, Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s The Fix?

Here are four critical actions, according to the book, that business owners must take to create a culture of accountability in 2014:

1. Hold yourself accountable. “You must hold yourself accountable to at least the same level of expectation you have for your employees,” says Miller. “A rule applies to everyone or it applies to no one. As a leader you must be keenly aware that everyone is watching you, and everything starts at the top.”

Bedford gives the example of Sir Alex Ferguson, the long-time coach of Manchester United soccer club, who held everyone, including himself, accountable to the credo “The club is more important than any individual.” No matter how skilled or important they were, if a player didn’t follow that rule, they were let go.

2. Spell out expectations to the letter. Without clear expectations, there’s no way to hold someone accountable. Make sure em­­ployees have a clear understanding of what is expected. That may mean going into detail that, on the surface, feels like overkill—but isn’t.

3. Know when to nourish your employees. Of his time at Gen­­­­eral Electric, Jack Welch once said, “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”

Welch knew the importance of holding people accountable. He had a standard for his employees, and anyone who didn’t meet that standard would suffer the consequences. When mistakes are made, you can and should hold your people accountable. If you don’t, they (or your company) can’t improve.

Holding employees accountable means telling them the truth. To do so, you must talk with them about what they’re doing well and where they need to im­­prove. This is where the accountability process breaks down most often.

4. Hone the art of instant feedback. Many people don’t like giving feedback. But you can’t hold people accountable without it. For feedback to be productive, it must be shared regularly and without delay.

“If this practice becomes part of the culture, your people will come to expect it and not feel that it’s anything unusual,” explains co-author Julie Miller. “Leaders should share impressions as soon as they see the behavior they would like to encourage or discourage. Make sure feedback is specific, focusing on the particular issue or behavior in question. If a leader will focus on what the person actually said or did—the facts and nothing but the facts—without labeling the em­­ployee or the action, the employee will be more likely to hear and heed the feedback.”

7 ways to make your staff (and you) more accountable in 2014

1. Conduct a 2013 account­­­­ability post-mortem. Despite accountability failures, it’s possible that no one at your organization thinks he or she is doing anything wrong.

“Call your team together for an open discussion of the company’s core values and required behaviors and where you’ve dropped the ball,” advises Julie Miller, co-author of Culture Without Accountability. “Explain that no one will get in trouble for acknowledging their own shortcomings or even pointing out those of others.”

“Set the stage by taking responsibility for your own transgressions,” suggests fellow co-author Brian Bed­­ford. “Finally, explain that things are going to be done differently in the upcoming year. Use this meeting to get consensus on what the core values and behaviors need to be to support the company’s strategies and goals for 2014.”

2. Hold an accountability boot camp early in the year. Help em­ployees understand why accountability is important and what accountable behavior looks like.

“Teach employees how to provide feedback to one another, since this is essential to developing a culture of accountability,” says Bed­­ford. “For leaders, you’ll need training that explains what accountability looks like for them and what they can do to be effective accountability role models.”

3. Create a behavior statement. Everyone needs to understand they will be held responsible not only for the results of their work, but also for how they go about their work.

Behavior statements make it clear what you’re looking for. For example, you might establish accountability behavior statements, such as:  Always do what you say you’ll do. Always tell the truth. Bring issues up as you discover them.

4. Regularly meet and talk it out. Meetings provide an opportunity for management to highlight people who have demonstrated good accountability, as well as to show where things went wrong and what could have been done better. Do this in a way that in­­structs rather than punishes.

5. Don’t promote accountability shirkers. Promotions and salary hikes should be only for those who demonstrate accountability.

“When your employees do well, reward and promote them,” says Miller. “If they don’t do well, apply consequences and make sure they understand that their performance will limit their success and possible progression. Do not promote em­­ployees with problems with accountability, especially if they’ll be moving into a leadership position.”

6. Hire accountable ­people. Weed out the unaccountable by asking key questions during the interview process. Instead of asking about strengths and weaknesses, ask, “If I asked your boss how you demonstrated accountability, what example would he or she give?” Or say, “Share with me a time where you made a big mistake and how you handled it.”

If you’re interviewing a candidate for a leadership position, you might say, “Summarize a difficult conversation you had with an employee who had failed to meet a commitment.” Or, “Describe a situation in which you very clearly held others accountable for their performance and it paid off. How did you do it and what was the outcome?”

7. Monitor your success and make adjustments as needed. “Use regular business meetings to estab­­lish an accountability drumbeat to keep goals and metrics on track so there is a better chance to achieve success,” says Miller. “Reviewing goals at the end of the year and hoping for success will likely end in tears.”