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Building Accountability into Core Values and What That Looks Like

Peter DeBellis 
Research Leader, Bersin by Deloitte 

Accountability is a nebulous term. It also is a buzzword in Corporate America that cascades from the C-suite into line management. Semantics aside, accountability at work is critical. It matters and should be encouraged by leaders because “not having it means no one can be held responsible,” said Sean Pomeroy, CEO of Visibility Software.

The widely cited “Workplace Accountability Study” by Partners in Leadership found that 72% of more than 40,000 respondents across multiple industries claimed that they hold people accountable at work, but rarely with success. 50% of those surveyed claimed to dislike accountability because they didn’t know how to effectively implement it, said Mattson Newell, senior partner at Partners in Leadership, in his Inc. article, “The 4 Secrets to Building Workplace Accountability.”

Accountability is all about ownership and clarity. Ownership begins with accepting responsibility of a project, product or even task, from reception to outcome (and everything that may fall in between). One of the four organizational values at WorldatWork, for example, is to “own the outcome.” The other three are: (1) act in service; (2) be bold; and (3) be connected.

Clarity is making sure that your employees have a crystal-clear understanding of what the company is trying to achieve. In the “Workplace Accountability Study,” an astounding 85% of survey respondents indicated that they did not have a clear understanding of their organization’s “key results.” These key results, according to Partners in Leadership, are what your organization must deliver to survive and thrive.

Workspan recently sat down to discuss the importance of accountability with Peter DeBellis, research leader of total rewards at Bersin by Deloitte.

How do rewards professionals support and inspire accountability in their workforce?
Rewards folks can certainly model accountability through how they handle their own function’s processes and governance. And they can also support accountability to the extent that it is built into incentive and performance plans — the old “you get what you measure.” But rewards folks can’t do so alone or in a vacuum. One of the key findings from Bersin’s High-Impact HR research is that high-impact HR functions help to shape a culture of trust, inclusion and accountability — instead of focusing on compliance and control. And such a culture, in turn, predicts higher business and workforce results.

What do you say to leaders who let employees avoid accountability because they dislike confrontation?
Beware of short-term gain at the expense of long-term pain. Failing to hold employees accountable or applying inconsistent standards of accountability erodes feelings of trust and inclusion and can indeed prove contagious.

How do you make sure everyone on your team is pulling their weight equally to improve accountability in the workplace?
To make sure everyone on your team is pulling their weight in this regard, it is important to establish and model a culture of feedback on the team, as well as to be trusting and transparent, and to strive to afford your team members the psychological safety to speak up when they don’t agree or understand.

How do you increase trust and engagement, and align around a common cause to create a culture of accountability?
Trust, inclusion and accountability all need to work together. And the powerful effect of having all three of these ingredients can be seen in outputs such as productivity, quality and employee engagement.

Delegate to workers and trust they can make decisions (within boundaries) on the front lines that enhance agility and support customers and, therefore, the broader interests of the business. Without trust, accountability becomes a top-down exercise only and not a joint bottoms-up effort in partnership with employees.

Make sure people can bring their best selves to the role, on the front lines, and feel comfortable serving customers or colleagues in an authentic way. This is critical for innovation.

Install the reporting, communication and rewards systems to ensure alignment with company goals, values and so on. Also, make sure bottoms-up efforts don’t go off track by continuously monitoring, communicating and adjusting as needed. The existence of such systems not only helps with oversight, but also sends important cultural messages about the importance of accountability.

How do you elevate accountability from a buzzword to a business philosophy?
As with any desired behavior or approach, leadership can play an important role by modeling the end state — holding themselves accountable, admitting mistakes and failures, etc. —as well as by recognizing the desired behaviors in a timely and public fashion when others exhibit them.

Building accountability into core values, offering practical training on what it means and looks like (with examples and scenarios) and transparently reporting out about progress or challenges can all support entrenchment of the concept. Aligned performance management and rewards/incentive systems are critical as well. Finally, to ensure the next generation of accountable leaders will carry the mantle forward, build accountability into your leadership development, 360-degree feedback and high-potential and succession processes.

One final observation is that, while accountability is a noble goal, it may not be the ultimate goal. Rather, enabling workforce growth and performance in the flow of work so that accountability is part of the normal course of operations — as opposed to a separate process or initiative — may actually be the optimal end state. This notion is very consistent with some of the findings in Bersin’s High-Impact Performance Management research.

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