Accountability: Changing Mediocrity into Excellence

by on Jun 30, 2015 10:29 AM

Accountable is a powerful word. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines 'accountable' as being 'required to explain actions or decisions to someone' or 'being required to be responsible for something'.  The Anglo-French origin of the word defines it as being 'liable to be called to account'. 


Yet, I don't recall a company in all my years that felt they had enough accountability.  Or, every person in the organization could stand fully to an accountability test.  In other words, the idea of willin

gly being held responsible for actions and results/outcomes is generally weak in the workplace.  Why? 


Let's explore what can be done about it.


What it is

Accountability is the difference between mediocrity and excellence.  Excellent companies have high degrees of accountability.  Interestingly, management can't demand accountability, mediocrity or excellence.  No leader or manager can simply yell to the staff to 'be excellent!' or 'stop being mediocre!'  Rather, accountable characteristics are engrained into the culture of the organization based on the way management leads and manages. 


Leadership defines the culture of the organization.  If leadership is unwilling to confront issue


s or use tension to derive change, then the organization's culture will shift toward mediocrity.  An organization's culture accepts mediocrity when everyone doesn't:

  • Naturally challenge the clarity of an answer, or
  • Define an action with identified responsibilities and due dates, or
  • Clearly state expectations for individuals and groups, or
  • Implement consequences for missed commitments


To best explain what accountability looks like in a company, let me tell you a true story from years back. The senior-most sales leader of a software development company held a global meeting for all people managers in his organization to review year to date performance.  The senior leader recognized a flaw in the results he was reviewing with his global team.  He emphasized the need to get the issue corrected, the impact it would have if it festered, and the effort this team had already displayed to avoid such issues.  He asked who on his team had caused this issue.  Amongst the 100 or so managers in the room was a first line District Manager from Philadelphia.  The District Manager from Philadelphia stood up ' alone ' as the only manager who hadn't addressed the issue.  The senior leader was willing to challenge his staff, seek responsible parties, state expectations and place consequences for missed commitments. 


The senior leader also created an environment that was safe for the District Manager to stick out his head. Later, the leader showed how he created such an environment because he thanked the manager for facing embarrassment, for standing for the team, for seeking to make the situation right and for being on the leader's team.  Then the senior leader set expectations to get things fixed!


The senior leader sought accountability from his team by stating clearly that he was not going to tolerate shortcomings. Yet, the senior leader was also willing to be vulnerable with the manager in thanking the manager for stepping up for the betterment of the whole.


How to get or improve accountability

The story of the senior sales leader and the District Manager show that refusing to accept mediocrity is the first step to excellence.  If the senior leader withheld his concern about the issue, then the moment would have been lost to set expectations about executing well.  The leader skillfully faced conflict by being patient, communicating openly, honestly, clearly and directly, offered to trust rather than suspect, not belittle the manager publicly and build up the manager afterwards.


To get or improve accountability in an organization, the leader must take the initial steps to not accept mediocrity and to address issues head on even if it creates tension. Conflict or tension between two or more people is foundational to building accountability into an organization because it involves correction, adaptation and results.  This is why simply demanding excellence or wanting mediocrity to go away just doesn't get the job done.  Nothing will improve without first stepping through conflict or tension.   


In addition, an organization gets hurt when a leader takes a negative or passive-aggressive behavior because such behavior will permeate throughout the team as an acceptable approach. A slippery slope forms when others follow such behavior.


How to sustain accountability

I remain amazed at how many times I hear: 'I want a business that is easy to run or runs by itself.'  Owners who want to be hands off are effectively deflecting the accountability responsibilities of leadership and may be better off playing the stock markets or going to a casino.  To sustain accountability, leadership must establish the following four things throughout its organization:

  1. Trust and trustworthiness ' Trust is a two way street: Being worthy of someone's trust and taking steps to trust someone.  One does not truly exist without the other. And, they form the foundation upon which accountability can be built.  Without trust, the organization is a house of cards, ready to fall with the slightest of winds. 


The benefit of trust comes out in many ways with the greatest being wise decisions.  We've written before about rate-of-change saying leadership needs to apply appropriate speed and direction in order to keep teams aligned and marching effectively down a path.  Applying rate-of-change depends on wisdom born out of trust between people.


  1. Open and honest dialog ' My mom used to say: 'say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean'.  Having a dialog that gets to the point, stated in a respectful manner and staying focused on the issue and not the person are roots for trust. Add in a bit of maturity and subject knowledge and a productive dialog can take place.


  1. Clear goals ' Accountable teams know their purpose and the expected result. The goal or goals are well established, understood, accepted, and attainable (perhaps with some stretching!). Every team member is clear about their responsibilities and how they fit into the whole.  And, every member knows what the other guy is expected to achieve ' and trusts they will achieve it!


Goals should have an owner(s), be numeric, tie to the big picture and be time bound.  Here at Trilogy, we've sought to improve our accountability by adding two simple words to our actions and activities: 'by when'. Two simple words that are making a significant difference!


  1. Role clarity ' Accountable organizations ensure every member of the team has a clear role.  Lots of companies take this to mean they have a job description.  Helpful, yes.  Complete, no.  Role clarity must include two things about each performer: a) the performer clearly understands their own responsibilities and b) supporting employees clearly understand their own responsibilities. Supporting employees are those who give input-to or receive-from the performing member.


Role clarity gives the organization smart decision-making and timeliness.  When clarity is in place, other team members can move fast because they are confident that their colleague will perform to the known and accepted level of performance.


Role clarity can't take place unless the other characteristics are in place: trust and trustworthiness, open and honest dialog, and clear goals. 


Want to boost accountability?