Have you ever griped about your employees’ lack of initiative?

Or, grumbled over their unwillingness to take ownership of projects, processes and problems... and then just shook your head, thinking there is nothing you can do to boost accountability?

The challenge for organisations is that accountability is intrinsic, and people have to choose — for themselves — to act with ownership and accountability.

But accountability can also flourish in the right environment. If you want accountable people, you need to create the conditions that encourage people to fully own their decisions.

To foster a culture of accountability, organisations need to do five things:

•    Give support. Employees need support from senior leadership, direct supervisors and their work teams. Learn to tolerate mistakes and individual differences.

•    Provide freedom to direct important aspects of the work or to accomplish a goal.

•    Share information. Employees need access to all information needed to make decisions.

•    Provide resources. Red tape, tight control and too-few resources will undermine ownership and accountability.

•   Be clear. Communicate with clarity the goal, responsibility and consequences of action or inaction. Who else is involved and what outcomes are expected?

Reduce fear

Just as important, organisations need to remove unnecessary fear.

When there is fear, people tend to hide, hold back and do only the minimum of what is expected.

Fear can generate many other secondary emotions, such as aggressiveness, anger, micromanaging, defensiveness, lack of engagement and victim behaviour.

The first step to reducing fear is to earn and maintain trust. Trust is built slowly, and when it is lost, it takes a long time to rebuild.

The best advice is to build it consistently over time by being competent in the work, knowing when to communicate openly and when to keep things in confidence, and following through on what you say you will do.

In addition, every manager can counteract a culture of fear if they:

•   Listen and observe behaviour in meetings. Is there a balance of inquiry (asking questions) and advocacy (making statements)?

•   Catch employees doing something right. Don’t just look to correct them when they do something wrong. Provide rich developmental feedback to foster learning and appropriate risk-taking.

•   Get feedback on fear. Talk to employees and managers whom you can count on to be straight with you about their observations about fear and trust. Ask questions like: “Are people encouraged to innovate rather than conform?” “Is dissent tolerated?” and “What happens when mistakes occur? How does leadership respond?”

•   Acknowledge and share mistakes. Be upfront about your own missteps, poor judgment and errors, as well as the lessons learnt. True accountability comes when you are willing to own your mistakes as well as your successes.

Sometimes, in an effort to minimise fear, managers “over-correct” and fail to hold others accountable.

But even letting just one person off the hook can do a lot of damage because the message sent to everyone is, “Why bother?”

So be sure to send a consistent message of accountability.

Strive to be a role model of accountability yourself and expect others on your team or department to be accountable too.


Article by Roland Smith, vice-president and managing director (Asia-Pacific) for the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). It is a top-ranked, global provider of executive education. For more information, e-mail ccl.apac@ccl.org or visit www.apac.ccl.org