Accountability is commonly taken as a four-letter word. As used by at least some managers, it is often code for “Somebody (not me) really screwed up! Who did this (not me)!? Who is accountable for this mess (not me)? We have to hold ourselves (that is, you) accountable for better results than this!”

Indeed, dictionaries tell us that “accountable” means “liable for” (who likes liability?) and “answerable to” (who wants that?). So it’s no great surprise that accountability is often seen in a negative light.

But accountability need not have such menace. Seen from a more positive slant, accountability fundamentally means, “Let’s make sure the right things get done right - let’s keep track and keep count - let’s take responsibility for our actions and the results of those actions - let’s create and use systems that make it easier to operate that way.”

If done properly, the negative, punitive angle of accountability can largely be avoided altogether.

Act naturally

To go further, accountability should be something we naturally expect of ourselves as well as others, and positively reinforce when we see it. It is a core element of a positive work culture in general, and a positive safety culture more specifically. The reality is that all leaders, including of course safety leaders, strive to establish and maintain accountability with their folks. They must.

Let’s talk in specific terms about how to do that with the positive spin that is, I think, more appropriate and certainly more effective than a negative approach.

At the organizational level, companies commonly implement so-called “performance management systems” that include the following what we might term “steps to institutional accountability”:

1 Set clear performance objectives, in terms of overall outcomes and behaviors.

If folks are to be held fairly accountable for their results, they have to have a clear idea of just what those results are supposed to be. Managers sometimes assume that it ought to be obvious what the objectives are - after all, they understand them, and anyway, “it’s just common sense,” as they are prone to say.

The reality is that oftentimes performance objectives are in fact not clearly specified, and are not automatically understood, such that willing, well-intentioned workers may fail to do the right things, through no real fault of their own. Effective performance management systems always start with clearly specifying goals and objectives that are specific and measureable (among other characteristics). Such goal-setting is a huge part of the essential Step #1 in the process of fairly holding folks accountable.

The other part is addressing behavioral expectations - what is expected of us in terms of our behavior as we work toward those established and agreed upon goals.

2 Coach and train to those objectives and expectations.

As critically important as it is to have a clear set of objectives, fully understood and embraced by the individual, it is equally important to have the training and coaching to ensure that employees have a fair chance of reaching those objectives. The objectives give folks the “what”; training helps them with the “how.” It is not fair to expect folks to bootstrap themselves into becoming top performers, as they are commonly expected to do. To the contrary, they are owed some training in how to get there. “Throw them in the deep end and see what happens” is not coaching.

3 Measure and evaluate performance on an ongoing basis.

We need some sort of scorecard, some way of tracking results, and comparing them to the expected levels of performance. Most organizations have developed over their lifetime an abundance of tracking systems, for all kinds of performance indicators. It is critical to fair accountability that such measures be taken, and the results be made visible to the employee.

4 Give ongoing feedback.

This critical element is one of the most commonly omitted or under-emphasized. It is an unfortunate (and completely avoidable) reality that most people at work do not get much feedback on their performance. A visible tracking system allows the employee him/ herself to know right away if performance is on track or off track. Verbal feedback from the manager, peers, and other knowledgeable sources supplements and supports the visible feedback, and adds the personal relationship element to the feedback - someone else noticed and cared - which magnifies the effect of the feedback.

5 Appraise performance.

In a more formal, summary way, we should document results against the set objectives, and behaviors against the set expectations. Performance appraisal should relate directly to the expectations set at the outset, to the feedback given along the way, and the ultimate results achieved.

6 Repeat the process for the next review cycle.

Such systems provide an excellent foundational structure for institutional accountability. They do indeed make it easier for managers and leaders to achieve their objectives. They focus and direct behavior.

Honor commitments, concede mistakes

Important as such a systematic structural approach to managing performance is, it is not in itself sufficient to ensure results.

Such institutional accountability systems don’t work without a reasonably high level of personal accountability on the part of employees at all levels. If people don’t follow through and do what they said they would, and their leaders don’t circle back to make sure that it is happening, it’s all just talk. If the level of personal accountability is low, you can go through the institutional accountability steps, and set goals and give coaching and feedback all day long, to no avail.

Personal accountability means honoring your commitments to yourself and to others. It also means acknowledging and correcting your own mistakes. It means taking ownership of issues, and if you didn’t do it right, owning that too. Most mistakes can be rectified if we quickly identify what went wrong, determine how to fix it, do so without undue delay, and learn from it so that we don’t repeat that mistake again.

It may not always be easy to acknowledge “my bad,” but again, a critical element of personal accountability is taking full ownership of your part in things, and working to address the problem, not to deflect blame and cover your rear end.

The essential ingredient

The ultimate success of any performance “programs” hinges on the climate of positive accountability established in the organization, which in turn hinges not just on institutional accountability systems, but on the prevalence of personal accountability as a critical competency of the individual.

We do our best when we establish personal accountability as a core value, select employees with that attribute of character, and consistently reinforce personally accountable behavior when we see it.

Accountability is not a four-letter word!