Building Accountability

Who would choose to work for an organization that does not hold the general manager accountable? Would you want to work for an organization that does not hold your co-workers accountable? Would you want to work for an organization that does not hold you accountable?

The first two questions are usually answered quickly, "not me," while the last question takes a little more time to answer. The reality is that an organization that does not hold you accountable probably does not hold your co-workers or supervisors accountable either.

Accountability is a term often used in the workplace. According to Webster's, the word accountable means "responsible," "answerable." We would all like our co-workers, direct reports and supervisors to be "held accountable," to be responsible and to answer for their performance. Much of the time accountability is being discussed it is being discussed in response to a person's work performance that does not meet someone's needs: "I did not get that report when I wanted it -- John must be held accountable." "The general manager is not meeting the needs of the cooperative -- s/he must be held accountable." "My supervisor was not here when I needed him/her -- will s/he be held accountable?"

It is obvious from such examples that a key component to accountability is expectations. We want people to fulfill our expectations and believe they should be held accountable for meeting or not meeting these expectations.

It is very difficult for an organization to perform up to its potential without having a system of accountability as one of its basic practices. Even though most organizations and individuals hold the belief that we all need to be accountable, much of the time organizations do not know how to make this belief a reality. If the message from those in key leadership positions in an organization -- the board of directors -- is not one of accountability from their general manager, it will be a message that runs throughout the organization and, although unspoken, will be heard throughout the organization. If one supervisor holds his/her staff accountable and another chooses not to, the organization will spend much of its energy dealing with this inequity. Time spent in this manner is time lost in moving the organization ahead towards achieving its goals.

"If the message from the board is not one of accountability from their manager, it will be a message that runs throughout the organization and, although unspoken, will be heard throughout the organization."

The concept of being held accountable, and having the responsibility of holding others accountable, should not be viewed with trepidation. With an appropriate system, all will gain from this process -- both by understanding exactly where they must focus their time and energy and also by being recognized for their achievements. It is easier to recognize an achievement when there has been a clear understanding (by the achiever and the monitor) of what needs to be accomplished, and regular monitoring is in place.

Being held accountable without having expectations clearly laid out by those in charge should be reason for concern. One of the biggest mistakes supervisors can make is to not communicate clearly their expectations to their supervisor. Holding people accountable without clear expectations/goals is a formula for resentment and failure. On the other hand, if all staff are aware of the expectations of them and aware that everyone in the organization is being held accountable to a set of expectations or goals, they may view this as a very positive approach.

One of the better ways to foster a culture in which accountability is welcomed and viewed as a tool to enhance everyone's performance is to begin with clearly defined goals within every level of the organization. Without having a clearly defined goal, how will you know when you have succeeded? The board of directors must create goals for itself and with the general manager, the general manager creates goals with the department managers, and the department managers create goals with their staff.

The concept is for the supervisor to create goals with the person who must achieve the goal. It could be self defeating for the supervisor to create and hand goals to an individual. The individual must participate in the construction of goals so he/she will be more effective in trying to achieve the goals.

Goals need to have a structure to ensure they not only can be achieved but also can be measured. A useful acronym for testing your goals is SMART:

S:specific -- precise, to the point
M:measurable -- can be measured, comparable
A:attainable -- able to achieve, accomplish
R:realistic -- actual, factual
T:time constrained -- to be accomplished within a specific timeline.

A goal which meets the above criteria will be one that all parties involved can feel good about, and it will include all information needed to foster success by the achiever and allow adequate measuring by the monitor.

Once goals are defined and understood by all parties involved, it becomes critical to monitor movement towards accomplishment of those goals. The method of monitoring should be spelled out and included in the goals. The task of tracking the movement towards goal achievement should be done by the person whose goal it is. This ensures the achiever is aware of their performance against what is expected on a regular basis -- sort of a regular self evaluation.

A report consisting of a two- to five-sentence update written under each goal can be given to the supervisor weekly, monthly or quarterly, depending on the time constraint in the goal. This enables the supervisor to monitor goals by direct reports in an efficient and effective manner. The supervisor can then give appropriate feedback to staff so all will be operating from the same information.

A key element in creating a culture where accountability is welcomed is to make sure you spend as much energy on rewarding those who are achieving their goals as you do correcting those who are not. This is something that is very often overlooked. People tend to notice when others are falling short, but take it for granted when others are accomplishing their goals.

Accountability Steps at Mississippi Market

At Mississippi Market Cooperative in St. Paul, Minnesota, a desire to quickly improve customer service took the form of a set of short-term (30 day) goals for every staff member. The entire staff knew that all of their co-workers and supervisors also had goals to improve customer service in the same period of time, and all would be monitored and evaluated (held accountable). All staff members signed an agreement stating they understood and would work to achieve their goals. Customer feedback came quickly and was very positive. Improvement was impacting those who were the target of these goals. Since one of everyone's goals was to greet the customers more, one team made a contest of who could greet more customers. Almost overnight, these folks changed their organizational culture.

At one organization where I worked, each manager updated the department goals (which were in the business plan) quarterly, and the general manager gave the board of directors a quarterly report on the whole organization's movement towards goal attainment. This report included the original goal and each successive update under the goal, so the board could track movement of the entire organization with one document and could see progress towards each department's goal. This reduced discussion time during board meetings and focused the major part of the discussion on areas where expectations (goals) were not being met. It also gave the board the tools to regularly recognize accomplishments of their organization. It created an atmosphere in which each reponsible individual knew they were being held accountable. They knew their performance was reviewed by their manager, and the measuring tool was one all parties had agreed to during the construction of the goal.

This process enabled me to easily review work performance of those individuals who reported to me. We both understood the ends they were aiming for, and as long as all action taken to achieve those ends was within appropriate limits (not outside the law, personnel policy or operating policies), we could focus on the outcome. I could measure the individual's effectiveness regularly and give them feedback.

If you current work in a team environment, I encourage you to consider having each team member's performance goals and progress reports shared with the entire team. Having team members report to and be accountable to their team in this manner can help create a truly high performance team. At the abovementioned organization, the department managers and the general manager reported their progress and difficulties in attaining their goals to the entire management team. At times a department manager would see how their actions impacted another manager's ability to achieve a goal. This fostered a desire from the team to help each manager obtain his/her goals. The process of creating strong accountability also created stronger teamwork.

All organizations I have been involved with put a big emphasis on annual evaluations of all staff members. This, at times, is seen as an employee's right and an organization's responsibility. A majority of organizations tie financial reward for the employee to the annual review. With all the importance placed on reviews, we must ensure that they are fair and that the outcome encourages behaviors that meet the orgnanization's needs. What better way to be reviewed than to be measured against a set of goals that you helped create and track? The person being reviewed should have a very good idea of how they are doing prior to the review and have had time to correct poor performance before being reviewed.  The entire review process and feedback session, when employees learn how they are viewed by their peeers and supervisors, will be less stressful for all parties involved.

No discussion about accountaiblity would be complete without addressing the need for specific consequences at times. Upon establishing goals it is best to talk about the consequences of both achieving and of not achieving the goals. How will this impact the employee -- monetarily and in opportunities for advancement? When staff members are not meeting their goals they must explain how and when they will correct their performance. The corrective action should be agreed to be the parties who created the goals in the first place. It will be helpful, at this time, to remind the staff member of the consequences discussed when the goals were established. If expectations and consequences are clearly laid out, individuals will have good information on how they will be dealt with. Once again the reduction of anxiety for all parties involved can be very helpful.

If your cooperative chooses to move down the path to become an organization that holds each individual accountable as a tool for achieving success, make sure you have addressed these key points:

  • Accountability must begain at the top and run through the entire organization.
  • Clearly defined goals are essential.
  • A strong monitoring and feedback system helps create success.
  • Consequences are part of the process.

With the above points in place, and some adjustment time for a culture shift, your cooperative can become a place where board and employees all understand where the cooperative is going and how each individual is responsible for getting there. Furthermore, you will know how you are performing as you move along the path.

See other articles from this issue: #085 November - December - 1999