Even the most casual sport fan heard about the recent firing of Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach David Blatt. The move was a big surprise given the Cavs’ standing at the top of the Eastern Conference Central Division. In an awkward and rather opaque TV interview the following evening, Cavs general manager David Griffin stated, “We need to be accountable to one another.”
Accountability. Most would agree it’s worth striving for, if not outright demanding it. Yet accountability is elusive in too many organizations, despite the common understanding that it’s a virtue. Why is that so? I can’t speak to professional sports teams, though ego and outsized pay checks are surely factors. But for companies, these are the most frequent reasons I observe that make accountability difficult to master.
- Accountability is not a core value. Successful companies articulate their core values in such a way that one can visualize and distinguish precisely what these values look like in the context of their workplace. Values provide guard rails for behavior and a common language to guide internal and external interaction, hiring, firing and rewards. When accountability is not elucidated in a company’s core values, it is no longer obligatory. Rather, it becomes simply an ideal that no one is on the hook for. Integrity is accountability’s close relative: doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it, to the best of your ability.
- Too few employees have defined roles, goals, or metrics to measure success. Accountability is amorphous because we too rarely tell people precisely what is expected of them and what success looks like. Job descriptions, measurable goals, key performance metrics – these are the constructs for accountability that remove subjectivity. The chasm between many managers and employees is interesting. The former agonize, “I pay them well; they should know what to do” as if their employees read minds. The latter bemoan, “I have no idea what they want from me, what my priorities are, what success looks like.” When responding to my Organizational Health questionnaire, on a scale of 1 to 5, most companies I begin work with have an average score of under 2.7 on the question, “I understand my accountabilities and have metrics to measure progress.”Sales reps are typically accountable in the form of that thing we call quota, yet a revenue number by itself is insufficient. They are at risk of missing their numbers because they rarely understand the sub-set of accountabilities that, if met, will get them to that goal. As a result, the annual quota is a number they’ve no confidence in attaining, nor can management count on.
- Top producers are exempt. Among the rumors surrounding the firing of Cleveland’s coach was that Blatt didn’t hold LeBron James, the team’s #1 player by far, accountable. This exemption for top producers exists in many companies. The thesis that a top producer is too valuable to lose – “We can’t make him; he’ll quit” – causes leaders and managers to look the other way when that individual doesn’t live up to her obligations or selectively follows the rules. This is particularly true when it comes to behavioral accountabilities. Selective exemption is a culture wrecking phenomenon that leads to pernicious results: poorly functioning teams, process breakdowns, low morale, apathy, and a blame vs. solve world view – certainly not the stuff of high functioning organizations.
- The C-suite doesn’t lead by example. Modeling accountability is essential if we want our employees to follow suit. We must demonstrate that it’s an organizational covenant, irrespective of one’s place on the org chart. Last week, I facilitated a cross-functional project meeting for a client. Everyone had an assignment to complete in advance. The managing partner arrived – late no less – without having completed his assignment. He had allowed ad hoc work and interruptions to take precedent over his commitment to the team. “Sorry, it was a super busy week” was met by a “you have to be kidding me” look in everyone’s eyes. As if their weeks hadn’t been busy, too. Afterward, people expressed resignation. “Same old story; he says he wants change but it’s BS.” Unspoken, but in the air, was the sentiment that people weren’t going to do the heavy lifting for a boss that wasn’t willing to do it along with them. They are destined to maintain the status quo, instead of realizing growth, if it continues to happen
Accountability is elusive. We all know it’s a good thing, but too often we avoid the hard work required to institutionalize it. It’s simple – not always easy – to solve:
- Make accountability a core value
- Qualify and quantify what it looks like
- Allow for no exemptions
- Model the behavior
What do you think? What other elements are at play that make accountability elusive? Please share the ways that you’ve successfully institutionalized accountability in your organization. Missteps and blunders are instructive, too.