Who Me? How to Build Accountability in the Workplace

Best-selling author David Maxfield explains why it’s important to hold one another accountable at work and how we can do so.

Holding someone responsible for their actions, or lack of action, is easier said than done, especially if that person is someone you work with. Accountability in the workplace is not the norm, according to David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and coauthor of Crucial Accountability Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior.

“We live in a culture of no accountability,” said Maxfield, who will lead a session at the ASAE 2014 Annual Meeting and Exposition in Nashville, August 9-12. “And many times in organizations, we use hierarchy as a crutch. We have supervisors and managers and leaders hold others accountable, but we don’t hold each other accountable, and we don’t hold our bosses accountable. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

As a first step, Maxfield shared some advice and perspective on how to create a culture of universal accountability in the workplace:

We have supervisors and managers and leaders hold others accountable, but we don’t hold each other accountable, and we don’t hold our bosses accountable.

Why is a culture of accountability to so important for organizations?

Because work today requires interdependent teams and collaboration. Our associations are made up of narrow specialists who have to work with each other, and if they can’t trust each other to do their share, if there’s not accountability that knits these teams together, then [associations] are unable to accomplish their mission.

What does a culture of accountability look like?

It looks like one where peers hold peers accountable. Peers hold their bosses, their leaders accountable, and they even hold their members, or their customers, accountable.

What happens when a culture lacks accountability?

The symptoms you see first would be a lack of performance: missed deadlines, lower quality of work, lack of vision, poor follow-through, poor execution. And when we get inside it and look beyond the results and look at what’s happening day to day, often [we see] a culture of collusion. There’s this unspoken norm that if you don’t hold me accountable, I won’t hold you accountable.

We often find that the only people who hold others accountable are bosses holding their direct reports accountable, and that’s just not good enough in today’s world.

How can we start holding each other more accountable?

We find that, to a large extent, it’s an issue of skill, not motivation. People see a coworker who’s not pulling their fair share, and they’re concerned, they want to speak up, but they don’t know how to speak up in a way that is helpful and is friendly and is appropriate for a peer.

Often when we’re thinking of holding someone accountable, the kind of accountability we’re thinking of is how do I kick butt and take names like my boss does. Well, that’s not a really good form of accountability. Instead, you want to understand what are all the different causes of the problem, and how can I help this person solve the problem?

What’s a good way to talk to another person who needs to be held accountable?

The first is to start with the facts in two areas: What was it you expected, and what was it you observed? Be objective as possible.

For example, if you expected to get a report by 10 a.m., and it’s 2 in the afternoon and you haven’t seen it, stop by the person’s desk and ask “What’s going on?”

You want to get the facts. Then you want to stop and listen. We often assume when someone is not doing what we want them to do, that it’s because they have bad motives—either they’re lazy or they’re out to get us. We way overestimate that. It’s far more likely that they’re facing an ability problem.

Stop and try to find out: Is this an instance where they don’t share your priorities, or is this an instance where they are facing a problem?

What about when the person you need to hold accountable is your boss? What advice would you give?

Here’s the adage I use, I get it from the military: Always salute the flag before you disagree with your commanding officer.

It means two different things: First, it means show respect for them, for their role, position, authority, who they are as a person. Secondly, when you salute the flag, you’re reminding the other person that you both serve under the same flag, that you want what they want. You’re on the same side.

Another way to think about this is that because we live in a low-accountability culture, and you’ve decided to hold someone accountable, you’re doing something countercultural, and it’s going to look like an attack. So you need to find a way to say that this is not an attack and explain what your motives are.

How do you encourage accountability for yourself or others? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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