As managers, holding employees accountable is what we do. And, we expect our people to hold themselves accountable, too. These are core company values, right?

Let’s dive a little deeper into this. Accountability is more than a task. It should be a practice that is woven into your company culture ― not a box that’s checked on a list or a task that’s marked “complete” in the latest project management portal.  I am talking about the fibre of your business ― the soul, really.  It’s about consciousness and expectations. Sure, holding employees accountable is a must, but we are also talking about the expectations your team members have of each another―their colleagues and fundamentally, themselves.

When you’re talking about culture, you’re talking about the heartbeat of your firm―your core company values.  What makes your culture unique? What differentiates you? And how does that inform the way your organization behaves?  Culture is what makes you tick. And contrary to the conventional wisdom out there, most professional services firms don’t really have a culture of accountability at all.  Maybe it’s a case of the cobbler’s son having no shoes? I don’t know. Instead, they have a culture largely defined by hazy goals, vaguely managed projects, lousy internal communications, and hysterical fire drills. That’s not accountability. That’s chaos.

Here’s the problem. I’ve heard some of my clients say that accountability is the punishment required when something goes wrong. It’s the institutionalized assignment of blame.  Taking the fall. In this scenario, accountability becomes almost predatory―far from productive. Who can we “hold accountable” for this mess?  But that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Accountability as part of your culture shouldn’t be about pointing fingers after the fact.  Instead, positive accountability should be the vehicle for clarifying responsibility in the beginning.  That way, you can use proactive positive management and organisational tools to ensure that you make the necessary mid-course corrections along the way.

At its most basic level, any business ―including yours―is about leveraging resources to generate a superior return on investment. And that requires that you are as efficient as possible.  To be efficient, you must have predictability and process.  You must manage to that predictable outcome, and to do that effectively you must empower employees and establish and sustain a culture of positive accountability.

Prominent psychologist and speaker Bill Crawford addresses the counterproductive impact of accountability as blame or shame in his work. He suggests that leaders should focus on the trustworthy part of their workforce to become partners in problem-solving. He says:

“This means tapping into the upper 80% of the brain where their employees’ knowledge, intuition, creativity, and problem-solving expertise resides. It also means avoiding shaming or blaming as a way of creating accountability within the organization.”

Can you see the difference? More important, can you see how that difference has played out in your firm? Is teamwork in your DNA? Or is it every man for himself?

Teamwork First

All too often we see firms scrambling at the last minute as a mode of operations, not because they were given inadequate time to complete work, but because they did an ineffective job of managing that work internally.  They didn’t manage the project in a way that defined clear goals. They didn’t distribute responsibilities clearly, and they didn’t periodically touch base to ensure that things were on track. And that’s why you must be deliberate about crafting your culture. Core values based on teamwork don’t just happen. Here are a few “helping-first” culture tactics:

Structure your business around self-managing teams.

Don’t just give folks lip service about teamwork.  Empower employees to make their own decisions. Give them the authority to get their jobs done on their own terms and responsibility for the results.

Give teams significant tasks with mission-critical outcomes.

Make important assignments and assign projects with gravity and impact― not just planning the holiday party or summer picnic.

Encourage the formation of informal teams.

Support teams to explore a wide range of issues and questions to create a sense of autonomy and influence at every level throughout the organization.

Listen (really).

Engagement and vigorous participation will flourish when teams see results. This may be in the form of measurable impact, but it may be as simple as an acknowledgement of progress made.

Provide the support necessary.

This includes a variety of key resources to actually get things done― the time to participate in team initiatives, adequate space to work, budgets, various permissions, etc. One last post-script. If you’re sitting there smugly thinking “this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t have any employees,” then you couldn’t be more wrong.  Who’s the hardest person to “hold accountable”? That’s right.  It’s you. Would you like to learn how to create your own winning company culture?