Establishing Accountability Through Effective Leadership

In families, organizations, and indeed even our society, one of the reasons for failure is the inability by leadership to establish and enforce accountability. Accountability in leadership is a topic that is not frequently discussed and the result is often relating to compliance to procedures, following work rules, treating customers with respect, achieving results, and getting along with co-workers. Accountability is at the heart of empowering people to perform well, demonstrating initiative, and acting responsibly. When a climate of accountability exists, things work smoothly; and when it is absent procedures fail and policies are ignored.

Let me describe parental leadership first. I read a newspaper report about a father who had an emotional outburst and caused a scene in a school board meeting regarding the suspension of his son from school. His eleven-year-old son had threatened the life of another student on the playground. Following district policy, the principal had suspended the boy for three days saying, “In light of tragedies that have happened in schools around the country, we take all threats such as this very seriously. The policy requires a three-day suspension.”

The irate father emotionally pled his case to the school board saying, “He’s a good boy and even though this is the second time this year he’s been suspended he doesn’t deserve punishment this harsh. Three days is just too much, because it’s embarrassing for him and our entire family.”

The father apparently was saying that because the suspension would be embarrassing that the punishment ought to be reduced. In other words, the consequence of the son’s behavior is trumped by the father’s desire to evade embarrassment. That is interesting in light of the father’s emotional outburst in a public school board meeting.

Establishing AccountabilityNow let me describe organizational leadership. A manager complained, “My employees just don’t take me seriously.” She said, “Even though I tell them over and over, some employees won’t even call in to say they are sick. They just don’t show up.”

I asked what she did when an employee didn’t take the time to call in sick. She replied, “I just find somebody else to work the shift and then when they do show up I tell them to be sure to call me next time.”

I asked, “So how is this technique working?” She said, “It’s not! That’s the problem. I can’t find good people these days.”

The situations with the irate parent and the ineffective manager are related. They both show the absence of a leader establishing and enforcing a culture of ownership and individual accountability. When people do not feel that they are held accountable for their behavior, they often lower their performance to the lowest possible level acceptable to the leader. In other words, leader behavior regarding the establishment of accountability does a lot to determine a person’s highest level of performance. That’s what the eleven-year-old boy did on the playground. He had gotten away with inappropriate behavior before (certainly at home and possibly at
school) and believed he could do it again. His previous inappropriate behaviors had not resulted in undesirable consequences for him. That’s similar to what the employees were doing to the manager. They had not been held accountable when they didn’t call in sick before, so they had no belief that it was a necessary requirement to maintain job security. The manager’s failure to hold her employees accountable created an overly permissive climate where the employees could dictate their own policies and procedures.

The foundation of establishing accountability is the principle of Behavior Must Equal Consequence. When people do not believe that their behavior will result in a consequence, they are free to choose any behavior that feels good at the moment. When people believe that their positive behaviors will result in positive feedback or even rewards, and their inappropriate behaviors will result in corrective feedback,
coaching, or even discipline, they will raise their performance to the standard expected by the leader. The leader sets the standard through his or her application of feedback, coaching and discipline.

I don’t know all of the details about the parent and his son, the schoolyard bully, but it is a safe bet that the son had not been held accountable for his behaviors in the past. The reason he threatened another classmate’s life is because he didn’t believe that his behavior would have any undesirable consequences. He thought he could get away with it. And, the reason why the manager’s employees didn’t call in sick, and didn’t even apologize for not doing so was because they also thought they could get away with it. The two examples are related because in each case the leader failed to establish personal accountability by practicing the principle of Behavior Must Equal Consequence.

Effective leaders believe in and practice the principle of Behavior Must Equal Consequence. When an employee performs well and/or adheres to organizational rules, an effective manager will notice and provide the employee with appropriate feedback to reinforce the good performance. Likewise, when an employee does not perform well and/or does not follow the rules, an effective manager will notice and provide the employee with corrective feedback, or coaching to change the performance. Exactly the same thing is true when raising children. Behavior Must Equal Consequence, both positive and negative, must be a guiding principle to raise responsible children who as a consequence act responsibly.

Personal accountability is a climate that is created when a leader consistently practices Behavior Must Equal Consequence. The word “consistently” often bothers managers, because they think it means “every time.” Clearly, a manager cannot provide supportive or corrective feedback every time an employee does something. That obviously is not possible. But a manager can do what is necessary to become more aware of an employee’s performance and then provide appropriate feedback as often as is practical. Simply, if employees feel and act as though they are accountable, then the leader is practicing consistent feedback. If employees do not feel and act accountable, then the leader is not consistent with his or her feedback.

Consistency not only involves the frequency of feedback in that it must be frequent enough to create a climate of accountability, but it also includes the ppropriateness of the feedback. In the principle of Behavior Must Equal Consequence, good performance must result is supportive feedback, and poor performance must result in corrective feedback. If a manager, due to stress, anger, lack of understanding, failure to take time, or habit gives negative feedback for good performance, positive feedback for poor performance, or no feedback for any performance, then the employees will sense a lack of consistency and conclude that they are not accountable for their actions. Thus they are free to act any way they want.

So the secret to creating a climate of accountability is to become more aware of performance levels, take the time to give the correct type of feedback or coaching, give feedback as often as practical, and do so as consistently as conditions permit. Done over time with the proper administration of rewards when deserved and discipline or sanctions when appropriate, a manager can create a climate of accountability and become more effective.

About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.

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