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Graham Scrivener

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Why being accountable matters


Graham Scrivener essays the importance of being accountable as a leader. 

Imagine a place of work where no-one was accountable for their actions. It would be full of scapegoats, blame, and endless excuses when things go wrong. Promises would be broken, deadlines missed and costs always overrunning. Doesn't sound great and certainly not somewhere you'd expect to inspire and engage your staff. Yet, last year 640 managers and executives around the globe were polled and found that a lack of accountability is more common than you'd like to think. 46% of managers - from junior, mid-level to senior executives - fail to take responsibility for their actions.

Only half of the people polled have seen their boss model accountable behaviour with 58% of leaders not keeping their promises and only 35% sharing information widely so people can be clear on their responsibilities and understand the business's objectives.

So what is being accountable exactly and why does it really matter?

Being accountable is about sticking to your word and honouring your commitments, even if it means making a personal sacrifice or going that extra mile to deliver to an agreed goal. It's beyond just being reliable. It's someone that can be counted on to do the right thing even in challenging circumstances. It is also about being prepared to take responsibility for your actions and outcomes even when things go wrong. There's no pointing the finger, or acting helpless or confused to try and wriggle out of a situation. Nor can you blame circumstances or make excuses such as 'I didn't have enough resources or the economic climate is to blame.' It's about taking ownership and, should circumstances go awry, then it's admitting a mistake and moving on to keep the task on track. 

Now imagine a leader who was always so steadfast in his actions and knew how to drive the same behaviour through others and you can probably picture a dedicated, loyal, engaged and therefore, higher performing team. In fact, the same global research on accountability last year and trust in 2013 has found a link between accountability, engagement and performance. Leaders that keep their promises and follow through on their commitments as well as admit their mistakes build a climate of trust and trust improves engagement and motivation which increases performance. 

So how can leaders build an accountable climate?

First, they need to be modelling accountability at all times; remaining steadfast even in the face of adversity and acknowledging errors.

Second, they have to know how to drive it through others which requires six actions.

  • Leaders need to ensure that individuals are clear on their commitments and know how they will work as a team to fulfil these goals. If people understand their individual responsibilities and how to deliver them then it's much harder for them to act confused or helpless, shift the blame or make excuses should tasks not be delivered on time or as expected.
  • Team players should know how their actions will benefit them individually as well as the wider organisation. Leaders must clearly align their team's goals against the long-term commitments of the company and the employee's career path. That way, members will see the contribution they can make to their own success and the company's, which will help to create a sense of responsibility, value and willingness to go that extra mile. If there are any differences in members' abilities and their approach then leaders need to address these and establish how commitments will be achieved.
  • However, if employees are to honour their commitments (and not make excuses), then leaders need to ensure that enough of the right resources and skills are available. They need to be constantly advocating internally to ensure their team know that they will be equipped adequately for success. Without the right tools to fulfil promises, employees will become frustrated, trust will break down and accountability will be considered pointless. 
  • Similarly, if people feel that they will be ostracised for making a mistake or failure then few will want to take ownership for their actions. Individuals will be reluctant to execute new ideas or take on challenges which stifles innovation and growth. It's about promoting and rewarding initiative whilst at the same time creating a climate where mistakes are admitted and accepted in a way that protects the individual and team's credibility, advances problem solving and helps the team to move on from the situation.
  • If there are any dilemmas then the team should feel that they can rely on their leader to support them to resolve the matter and not be left to sink or swim.
  • To close any gaps in the accountability culture then the best tools to use are coaching and performance management. Yet, our global accountability research found that only 47% of managers use performance management and only 38% use coaching to address a lack of accountability.

Coaching is a great opportunity to model accountability, share examples and the benefits of these actions and, overall, instil a sense of responsibility in others. Furthermore, leaders can use performance management to assign clearly aligned goals and review the person's sense of commitment against their actions and outcomes.

Leaders that follow these six steps will be able to count on a greater proportion of their teams acting in a highly engaged and accountable fashion, as our research has found. This in turn will help the middle 60% of performers contribute like the top 20%. Those that don't adopt these actions will have to rely on heroism from a few special employees to act responsibility and execute strategic initiatives successfully. Overall, it is the behavior and skills of our leaders that matter when creating an accountable culture. It requires clarity, alignment, candour, integrity, trust and even courage - the vital ingredients to turn performance into real business success.

Graham Scrivener is managing director of Forum EMEA. Forum EMEA is a global leader in leadership development and sales performance solutions. To download the replay of Forum's webinar 'How Great Leaders Drive Results Through Engagement and Accountability here


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