ISHN Guest BlogPosted on May 16, 2013 at www.bstsolutions.comby Rebecca Nigel

Accountability in its truest sense refers to one’s responsibility for one’s obligations. You are responsible for some result or you are obligated to someone. These are the things you are accountable for. In practice, we would say a person is accountable when he chooses a job that best provides for his family, or that a doctor is accountable when she looks out for the best interests of her patients.

Unfortunately, when people think of accountability, they most often think of being held, or holding someone else, “to account.” Some of us may have had the experience of having a supervisor ask to talk to us about “accountability” when he really just wanted to reprimand us for a lapse in our performance or for not meeting an expected deadline.

This is actually the opposite of accountability. It is the issue of what to do when someone doesn’t take responsibility or live up to their obligations. This is an important topic, but it is not accountability.

This misunderstanding is one of the major sources of frustration for new supervisors who have been promoted from the ranks – they are often afraid to hold their coworkers to account, asking: How do I hold a former peer accountable? How do I demand standards that I didn’t used to support?

In organizational terms, accountability is a lot less about holding someone to account than about helping people take responsibility for what they owe (their obligations). In that sense, accountability is an extension of justice; by practicing accountability we not only let people know what their obligations are (allowing them to know what success means), we also ensure they have the means to meet those obligations.

True accountability is a multi-dimensional activity that takes into account both the systems and culture of the organization, as well as the interpersonal aspects of the leader’s own actions:

  1. Systems: Nothing significant can be accomplished in any performance area, whether it’s finance, productivity or safety, without a network of systems to manage activities. Formal systems (e.g., performance management systems, key indicator reports) and informal systems (e.g., one-on-one conversations, ad hoc meetings) are both key to managing accountabilities. Leaders need to make sure these are in place, being used, and functioning properly.
  2. Culture: An organization needs to have a culture of accountability. In other words, where it is the norm for individuals to understand and meet their obligations, and to speak up about obstacles to meeting those obligations. Leaders need to build and nourish this kind of culture, which means they need to understand what accountability is, to demand it of themselves, their reports, and the organization. This is a moral issue. It takes leaders who are willing to foster organizational characteristics that support safety as a strategic performance area. In particular, higher levels of procedural justice (perceptions of fairness in supervisor decisions), upward communication (the extent to which communication about safety flows freely upward through the organization), and safety climate (perceptions that the organization has a value for safety performance) foster an environment in which people feel that meeting their obligations is important and valued.
  3. Interpersonal: Finally, accountability is interpersonal. Leaders need to be accountable themselves and responsive to the accountability, or lack of it, in others. This element is what makes accountability a personal practice of the leader; by demonstrating that he is himself accountable and expects is of others, the leader sets the example for others in the organization. Leadership accountability is an expression of the leader’s personal values, supported by his or her personal use of best practices and use of the appropriate leadership style for the job at hand.

Accountability, clearly, is not a stand-alone practice. Other practices, such as vision, credibility, feedback and recognition, action-orientation, and collaboration, are essential to giving accountability context, e.g., a vision defines a focus for assigned responsibilities. Done well, and in concert with the other best practices, accountability helps leaders elevate safety excellence above a bullet point on a wish list to a living, and achievable, part of organizational life.