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Cultures of accountability start with accountable leaders

Accountability fosters trust, enhances performance, boosts engagement and more. Here’s how to gain these advantages by building an accountable culture.

Teachers and coaches help students develop it. Consumers use it to amplify or boycott brands and products. Leaders use it to drive results for their teams. And yet accountability remains a foreboding and elusive term.

Broadly, accountability is about people taking ownership of their decisions and building trust with others. When done well, accountability creates ways of measuring responsibility without shame or blame.

Accountability is difficult to implement, but it doesn’t have to instill fear. Instead, we should all think about accountability as a network of people and processes supporting shared goals. To drive results, accountability must be intertwined at every level of an organization.

So, what does accountability look like and how can executives foster a true culture of accountability within their organizations?

Culture is everyone’s responsibility

We often hear about how leaders create cultures. This idea is shortsighted. Culture is dynamic. It defines how people engage and for how long.

While values set by leadership should attract people who share a purpose, what defines workplace culture is a consistent pattern of observable behavior in an organization.

Accountable leaders recognize everyone’s part before demanding accountability from individuals. When people have a defined role in shaping an organization’s culture, implementing measures of accountability becomes easier.

Barriers to accountability

Accountable cultures start from the top and drive honesty, clarity, and trust in the workplace, all of which influence retention and engagement. When accountability is lacking, on the other hand, a healthy organizational culture erodes.

Best known for her work on the social science of shame and vulnerability, Dr. Brené Brown’s research identifies leaders’ most highly ranked cultural issues. These barriers include “avoiding tough conversations, including giving honest, productive feedback.”

Avoiding discomfort associated with accountability also led to:

  • Diminishing trust and engagement

  • Increases in problematic behavior, including passive-aggressive behavior, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive backchannel communication, and gossip

  • Decreasing performance due to a lack of clarity and shared purpose.

True accountability engages people in their work and enhances performance.

“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”

When leaders tie everything to results and miss the human aspects that drive those results (or lack thereof), they miss the opportunity for real accountability.

A playbook for authentic accountability

To build a truly accountable culture, leaders must model the principles within their organization:

The gift of feedback

Wise leaders generously give and receive feedback. They understand that to meet goals or learn from shortcomings they need to hear from others. Additionally, leaders know feedback is a gift they can use to grow and to also help others excel.

The kindness of clarity

Clear is kind. Too often leaders hint at things being awry or incorrectly assume people will sense disappointment or disapproval. Realistically, that’s unfair. Avoiding tough conversations helps no one.

Executives who implement accountability organization-wide delineate what’s okay and what’s not and are rigorous about setting expectations. People want to perform well, and clarity is imperative for their ability to do so.

Trust built through transparency

Trust is built in small moments, attained through a consistent set of values in action. In transparent cultures, information is not a currency and is instead a resource for all.

Recognizing an organization’s failures while also rewarding hard work and progress help to build trust in leadership and trust in new processes. As a result, people feel more seen and heard, which elevates their ability to share meaningful feedback, test out new ideas, and collaborate to solve problems.

The blame game serves no one

Blame and accountability are opposites. Blame pits people against each other and robs them of the opportunity to fail forward. Blame interprets failure as things that happen to us without our influence. Accountability interprets failure as things that happen because of our choices.

Blame is corrosive, but accountability is fortifying. Blame can identify a problem, but it cannot fix it. Because of its divisiveness in organizational culture, leaders must avoid the blame game.

Instead, senior executives should ask pointed questions to assess why things go wrong while assuming those involved had the best intentions.

Curiosity is an asset

Curiosity as a cultural value can support and refresh the desire to do well. Leaders who drive accountability will encourage it.

Our brains love the comfort of certainty, but creativity and innovation can become stifled by ease. People need permission to experiment without penalty, the opportunity to try new approaches even if they may not deliver the desired result, and the safety to ask gritty questions that can help unveil new solutions and improvements.

Optimized results don’t happen without optimized leadership

Healthy cultures aren’t built by one person, but rather by a community of people aligned to values modeled with fidelity from the top. However, modeling well takes practice.

A Vistage peer advisory group is a confidential, supportive forum where CEOs and leaders at various levels contribute their insights and experience to foster each other’s success. Monthly meetings and coaching sessions help members hold themselves accountable for taking difficult actions and the experience can help leaders better models of accountability within their organizations.

And that’s just one of the advantages of Vistage. Want to hear more? Don’t hesitate to reach out.


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