We live in a fashion-driven culture that impacts every sector of our lives. What was trending last year (or yesterday!) is soon considered passé. Fashion changes are most noticeable in clothing, technology, language, music, and, for me, glasses. Just when I think I have finally caught up with the spectacle trend, it has changed again, leaving my face perpetually dated.
Management has fashion trends too. For several years, employee engagement has been all the rage. Now it seems we are moving to a new focus area–accountability. How do we make people accountable? What does accountability mean? How do we measure it? Is accountability merely a euphemism for knowing who to blame when things go wrong?
On the surface, accountability is about getting work done, which we want to measure using data, another concept that is fashionable these days. For some jobs, data is easy to find; for others, it is challenging. We can spend inordinate amounts of management time trying to decide what to measure, and then try to figure out how to measure it. Key performance indicators and metrics can be useful to provide insights about productivity and progress toward work goals in order to hold employees and managers accountable for their work. But that is not the whole story on accountability.
On a deeper level, accountability is about integrity, responsibility and trust. Do people follow-through on their agreements? Do they take responsibility for mistakes and step up to solve problems? Are people trustworthy and trusted to do the right thing, even if it is not expedient or popular?
Accountability is also about having and expressing mutual respect for everyone, and about working collaboratively within and across teams. Are teams productive and functional, complementing each other’s strengths and covering for each others weaknesses, or are they in a state of drama and conflict?
To build a culture with high integrity, responsibility, trust, respect and collaboration requires individuals to make a personal commitment to the work and to each other. People must believe in the mission, goals or the value of the work, to decide that committing their time, energy and creativity is worth the investment. Commitment of this caliber is an individual choice; it cannot be forced or easily measured with data.
In my view, too much focus on accountability can actually undermine it. Too much focus on measurable goals can create fear for employees “not making their numbers,” and can promote competition and blame where you want collaboration and cooperation. Too much emphasis on accountability can erode trust and responsibility by making it unsafe to take a risk.
In my experience, accountability is by-product of a healthy work environment, not the goal. To make a commitment to the work and each other, people need to feel safe, respected, affirmed and valued. Management would be well served to focus less on accountability and more on creating a safe and healthy work environment. For ideas on how to do this, see my book Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or Amazon.com.